Tanks Aces

Tank Aces of all nations and eras

The Tank Encyclopedia Biopics section

That's a very long time such section should have been made. WW2 (but also WW1, and the cold war up to the Gulf War), saw many prestigious figures which linked their fate to tanks, from their thinking, design to their exploitation on the battlefield. The latter case saw a number of tank aces exposed in this section. Tank Aces indeed are rare, more than "classic" aces, ie fighter aces.

The concept of aces

The term was indeed born during the great war. Between alerts and missions, fighter pilots used to wait and play card as a favorite passtime. The first ace emerged in 1915 with the birth of dogfighting and maintained by the need for propaganda on both sides: Adolphe Pégoud was the first registered "ace" with five points on the card, as the rule of five confirmed victories became a standard. The best ace of WW1 was of course Von Richtofen with 80 victories. However life expectancy was rather short. Parachute was not yet mandatory, and the narrow front and intensive attrition rate (with up to five missions daily) prevented more victories.

But the 'ace legend' was born. They were the superstars of their day, also having influence on new fighter planes design. WW2 of course spanned more years, and in addition the interwar conflicts saw new aces appearing: The Spanish civil war and the Chinese invasion for example. In both cases, the axis had an advantage, between veterans of the Legion Condor and those of the IJN. It is certainly not at random that WW2 cumulated far more victories, especially the aces of the Luftwaffe, such as Erich Hartmann and his 352 Victories... To put things in perspective, this was the equivalent of 17 average soviet squadrons. And this was only for fighter aces. Hans-Ulrich Rudel for example was the absolute tank killer, flying a Stuka which claimed 800 vehicles (and about 519 tanks), even ...a battleship.

Of course, aces were a gift for the Goebbel's propaganda. "Aces" also existed in submarines, also emerging during ww1. Probably one of the most famous was Lothar Von Arnaud de la Periere, but soon Kretschmer and Prien emerged as well during ww2. The concept of submarine ace however was rarer as ASW warfare became more lethal. Inexistant in ww1, it was refined after the end of the "golden era" just after USA entered the war, and late to apply basic protection. However after 1943 there was no chance another submarine ace would emerge as the attrition rate was tremendous. There is no wonder why the concept was soon extended to tanks, and that is not proper to WW2. A single tank battle, in any conflict, past and present, can saw an ace emerge. By default, the same rules of 5 confirmed "kills" apply. On that account, German superiority is crushing.

The concept of tanks aces

Of course, the concept of tank ace is the one of a 'tank killer' in one-on-one engagement. And that required about equal forces on both sides. So it was very unlikely to happen during the great war, and the entente's superiority was overwhelming (7,200 versus 20 tanks). Germany had only a handful of Sturmpanzerwagen A7Vs and captured tanks and they were mostly used for infantry support, scattered on the front. The only tank to tank encounter of the war appeared on April 24, 1918, near the small town of Villers-Bretonneux, and it was a draw.

The interwar saw doctrinal changes and revisions to the use of tanks, but there was no conflict in which tanks aces emerged, for that we have to take a look on the Spanish civil War and Japanese invasion of China. In the first case, the Republicans had only ww1-era tanks dating back from the Rif war in Morocco, which fell into Nationalist's hands, and the latter received support of the axis powers, traduced into supplies of mostly German panzer I and Italian L3 tankettes.

The Republicans saw an evolution with a gradual takeover of the Soviets with the help of the elected regime and the T-26 and BT series became the most common models. But tanks-to-tanks engagements were few as tactics involved mostly infantry assaults supported by tanks in small formations rather than the familiar concentrated armored push which emerged later. They acted as infantry support in combined operations, and far outnumbered by infantry and artillery on multiple fronts, so encounters with other tanks were rare.

They bring some lessons on both sides however, and Spain became for tanks the first "proxy war", something familiar to us during the cold war. During the Chinese invasion, the Imperial Japanese Army also deployed tanks but also armored cars, and they were used in support. Chinese tanks were rare and if there were some tanks encounters, no ace could ever emerge while the concept was just not though of by the Japanese. This was also true in WW2. The pacific war tanks engagement were rare and localized to landmasses such as China (Nomonanh plateau in 1939) and the Soviet August 1945 offensive, or some clashes in Burma and Malaysia. In the pacific proper, there was a single armored offensve by the Japanese at Okinawa, repelled by US tanks as well as antitank guns. Again, by 1943, allied tank superority forced the Japanese to fight without tank support most of the time, or with antiquated tankettes. Infantry often devised suicide attacks, carrying mines under a tank or trying to throw grenades into an open harch. Thus, tanks aces are unknown on this front.

Tank aces in 1940

Before Barbarossa in 1941, the German Army tanks to tanks engagements has been numerous during one phase on particular: The campaign of France in May 1940. Before that, in Poland, the bulk of the opposing forces were made of weak TK tankettes, spread over a large front. In Norway, tanks were used on a difficult terrain also for infantry support. No big pushes to consider the emergence of tank aces, and the concept was yet unknown. In Finland during the winter war, this was an 'infantry vs tanks' warfare, since the Finns possessed a very few tanks. Most would be captured later. In Yugoslavia and Greece also, there was never a significant tank opposition. The "real deal" therefore, where large tank battles appeared, was during the campaign of France, especially on two occasions: At Stonne and Hannut.

French counter-attacks after Sedan

At Stonne, a small village in NE France which changed sides 17 times (part of the larger battle of Sedan). The plateau was attacked by Guderian with the 10th Panzer Division and Großdeutschland Infantry Regiment. However, a reconnaissance of a single French B1 bis Tanks opened the battle. The tank was named "Eure" and just destroyed the entire line of tanks parked along the main street, one by one. In all, two PzKpfw IV and eleven PzKpfw III and several 37 mm antitank gun. Billotte's B1 returned all the way back to his company unharmed, but with 140 hits on the hull and turrets. The Germans's standard issue 37 mm was proven harmless. At Hannut, 12-14 May 1940 in Belgium a fight also became notable, in an attempt to follow the Plan Dyle. A French elite cavarly corps frontally clashed with the German XXVIth Korps with the III and IV Panzerdivisions. The latter were nearly destroyed, loosing 1/3 of their strenght. This was the largest tank battle of the year. For once, general René Prioux had heard about De Gaulle's works on tank tactics and that became one of the rare French 'correct' use of tanks in this part of the campaign (outside De Gaulle's attacks on Laon and Montcornet). He concentrated his tanks in rapid actions, mostly cavalry's Somua S35s, one of the best allied tanks at that stage. They proved superior in armor and armament, but took losses due to German superior communication and speed. This was however a rather successful delaying battle, like at Gembloux, 35 km from there. However the absence of air support proved fatal, as in many other occasions.

BEF's heroic armoured push at Arras

The British Expeditionary Force had also an exceptional tank, the heavily armored infantry tank mark II, also called Matilda. At Arras, the 4th Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) was found in the cyclone's eye when trying to cut the advancing German armored column during their march to the sea from Sedan. Indeed the 10th Panzerdivision repelled De Gaulle's attacks on 17 May (32 French tanks lost) and 18 May (80) tanks and other vehicles lost due to the very efficient Luftwaffe support. Afterward much of the French Ninth Army disintegrated because the action of Fliegerkorps VIII and the road was open towards Paris and the northern coast on 19 May, thretening Boulogne and Calais.

The next Day Gamelin order a general retreat from the north to try to link up with French elements attacking from the south. Meanwhile, with pressing demands to the BEF to back up on a more defensible line by the Belgians, Lord Gort reinforced Arras. Fate had Billotte, head of the French 1st army, killed in a car crash and the French front became headless for several days, leading the British to evacuate from the Channel ports. Meanwhile the 7th Panzer Division captured Cambrai and turned to Arras. The British decided to mount a coordinated counterattack at French request. But Bllotte's plan was over-optimistic. The composite force ('Frankforce') was deprived of air support, and soon of tanks promised by Billotte, of the French Cavalry Corps which could not be ready on time. It was, in the end, down to the 4th and 7th RTR and their infantry tanks, the latter being equipped with 58 Matilda Is, MG-armed and the more serious 16 Matilda II which reached an almost legendary status during this fight.

BEF Matilda II
7th RTR Mathilda II. With their considerable protection, they went through the entire SS-Totenkopf Division around Arras.

The Mathildas were all heavily armored and went into a rampage, first scrattering the Schützen-Regiment 6 near Agny, disrupting a convoy, and then repelling a counter-attacking antitank unit, the Panzerjägerabteilung 42. Then they overrun the Schützen-Regiment 7, leaving the rest of the motorised SS-Totenkopf Division reeling in confusion, as the British tanks nearly reached the German HQ. Rommel which encouraged the infantry to hold up was forced to improvize a two-prone defensive action (AT guns and later calling the Stukas) during this 10 mi (16 km) breakthrough in which 400 German prisoners had been taken, not counting all the antitank guns rolled over and German tanks and vehicles destroyed. Rommel assembled a last-ditch composite antitank screen with AA guns, the dreaded 88 mm, the only one capable of knocking out the Matildas. Only 32 British tanks were left after this assault, but the frontal armor of the Matilda II (80 mm) was proved inexpugnable and the rest of the armor was impervous to the standard PAK-37, with no weak point. There is however no registered British 'ace' in this battle as damage was difficult to assess, the surviving tanks returning to their rearguard position to cover the evacuation.

There were a few tanks-to-tanks engagement, sporadic defensive actions around the Dunkirk pocket until Operation Dynamo took place, but this was mostly an infantry vs tanks attrition fight. Afterwards, when Weygand became commander in chief of what was left of the French army, a static deep defensive system of "hedgehog" was set in place in June and no armoured push was attempted. At that stage, the forces went down to second-rate tanks such as the venerable Renault FT, mostly dug out in defensive positions. Tanks would became center-stage again later, in the sands of Africa.


Facing the British during Operation Compass in September 1940, were mostly weak tankettes, the majority of the 420 tanks lost or captured.

Tank aces in north Africa ?

Despite the superiority on paper of the Italian army in North Africa, stationed in Libya, the most common model was the infamous L3 Tankette, hardly a tank hunter. After a relatively successful invasion of Egypt led by Rodolfo Graziani, the 10th Army advanced about 65 mi (105 km) into Egypt but took defensive postions around the strategic port of Sidi Barrani, while the British main force was at Mersa Matruh. The Italians indeed only encountered screening elements until then. The 7th Armoured Division fell onto them and caused a general retreat. With speed and fierce motorized attacks, the British during Operation Compass were able to take prisoners 133,298 Italians and 845 guns, while knowking out 420 tanks. Again, given the discrepancy of forces, a British ace could have emerged during these fights, but this the latter collective mentality prevented such title. A tank ace was just unheard of at this point. And there was little chivalry knocking out with a two-pounder, scores of paper-protected tankettes...

DAK

Things would change in January 1941 with the arrival of Rommel and his composite light 5th division later renamed the 21st Panzer Division, the infamous Afrika Korps. However, if there were aces in the air to became the darlings of propaganda, like fighter pilot hans-Joachim Marseille, no tank ace came from this theater of operation. Technically, most of the destruction was operated by aptly placed anti-tank guns such as the new 75 mm Pak-40, and the 88 mm. Rommel used his composite force together with many captured elements with maestria, earning his nickname of desert fox, and thus retook not only the initiativ, but the terrain lost by the Italians and up to threatening Egypt. At El Alamein there were tanks actions, and soon, despite relative similarity in armament of the tanks on both sides, a tank ace emerged: Hans Sandrock

With a very appropriate name for desert warfare, Hans woulf fight four major battles on two continents, as part of the 3rd Panzer division and Afrika Korps. His tanks was knocked out in the Polish Campaign but he won the Iron Cross Second Class for his actions. Attached to the 5th Panzer Regiment after the Battle of France he joined the Africa Korps, taking part in efforts to regain the stronghold of Tobruk, and fought in Gazala. He was later promoted and joined an elite SS detachment in Italy. He later joined the eastern front, helping to destroy the III Soviet Tank Corps near Warsaw. His total score was 123 tank kills. Just like fighter pilots, only "tanks" really counted, but they also knocked out often more vehicles and guns, just like pilots sometimes counted on a "lower basis" their bombers, transport and recce planes downed. But the story of German tank aces was just only beginning. Their legend was carved on the Eastern front and names like Kurt Knispel, Otto Carius, Michael Wittmann or Ernst Barkmann became household heroes. Less well known, many aces still achieved a 100+ tanks hunting board: Paul Egger, Walter Kniep, Karl Korner, Franz Bake or Hermann Brix. The fact they are little remembered is due to most were soon promoted so SS units and became quite discreet after the war. Apart Carius and his book, few survivors really bragged about their wartime "exploits".

The birth of German tank aces

After the French campaign's tanks battles would emerge a fertile ground for muh more massive clash, such as Kursk, Kharkov, and many other places. Operation Barbarossa and the eastern front at large really built the legend of tank aces. The gigantic attrition campaign eventually collapsed German might. The Soviet Army was indeed a tough nut to crack: With about 20,000 tanks it was by far the largest tank force in the world, punching above what the wehrmacht could muster, even with its Axis allies, the Italians, Romanians, Hungarians... But this overwhelming Soviet superioriy existed on paper. Because despite an advanced view of the doctrinal use of tanks within the "deep battle" concept, the Soviets pioneered (at some point with the Germans in Kazan) Stalin's purges devoided the army of competent tank commanders. Therefore this massive tanks fleet was almost headless when Blitzkrieg tactics were applied once again, but at a gigantic scale. Large soviet formations (with tanks as support) were surrounded, left to artillery, the Luftwaffe and infantry during this fateful summer. At the fall of 1941 however, the Germans encountered masses of T-34 and KV-1s which had a considerable impact on their tank standards, the first time since they were designed in the late 1930s.

From this, were born two iconic machines, the Panther and Tiger, as well as the diverging philosophies in what became an attrition war: Quality versus Quantity. This resumed both points of views. For the Germans, better tanks must score enough kills to prevail over the masses. This meant superior optics, guns, armor, etc. This meant labor intensive and costly models. The Tiger was a perfect example of this. On the other hand as Lenin said himself "quantity has a quality in itself". Production was everything and standards were lowered on the Soviet side. To the point an average T-34 was made to make a trip to the battleline, with spare parts stored in case, fire a few shots with luck and be killed. Such differences in quality was fertile ground for the development of aces. The largest available AFV of the whole war was the STUG-III, a support self-propelled gun converted in 1942 as a tank hunter, with about 9,000 vehicles, whereas the Soviet Army was able to field nearly 80,000 T-34s of all versions during this war, but with tremendous losses.

Survivability for tank crews is what prevented the concept of an ace to emerge. One well-placed shot was quite often than not, fatal to a tank, and the crew inside. Many factors applied in terms of crew surviability such as the placement of the ammunitions, hatches's size and location, ergonomics etc, past the armour stage. It was not the case of a fighter pilot. To down a plane required many round, with a highly manoeuvrable, ellusive target. The concept of "first kill" proper to a tank did not existed. So this is only due to the particular character of tanks numers versus relative safety (on the Geran side) that the concept emerged, and became a gift for propaganda, a motivation to draw more future tankers, despite the fact this universe war far more gritter and less romantic than the geste of fighter pilots.

Plus, a tank depended on a collective skill to operate, the gunner, loader and driver were just as important as the commander. Each "kill" was a collective one. Therefore, tanker aces had even more reasons to be promoted to company or even regimental command, playing collective, whereas fighter pilots were by essence more individualistic. This was also a factor which slowed down a wider adoption of the concept. Only German propaganda desperately needed these, and later Soviet propaganda di dthe same. But this collective aspect was the main reason the allies, US and British never promoted any tank ace. For once, survivability was lower in allied tanks as a matter of fact, but a tank crew was about teamwork. It would have been seen disgracious for a tank commander to accaparate a victory whereas his tank was lost and members of his crew killed. Nevertheless, the merits of tanks allied commander and gunners were mostly rewarded at the end of after the war, such as Canadian gunner Joe Ekin, which supposedly killed Michael Wittman. Abrams and Poole had remarkable careers after the war.

Read More/Src:

dailyarchives.org top ten tanks aces





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