‘Greatest Tank Battles’ on Military Channel – Review
Tanks. The mere mention of the word brings images of mechanized beasts rolling over improvised battlefields in a headlong and extremely powerful jousting match. Replacing cavalry as the “romantic” weapon of ground warfare in the 20th century, tanks quickly established a tradition of grand spectacle before mid-century and continued to be the tactical weapon of choice for ground combat whenever practical.
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It may not be a surprise then that Military Channel has chosen to roll out its new original series Greatest Tank Battles (premiering January 5, 2011, 10–11 pm ET) with what one participant describes as probably “the last great tank battle of the 20th century.” The Battle of the 73 Easting took place during the Gulf War on February 26, 1991. It was a decisive victory of the U. S.-led United Nations forces over Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in response to the despot’s invasion of Kuwait. By the time the tanks of the U. S. Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment broke through the elite armor of Hussein’s Republican Guard, the war was all but over. Occurring as it did near the 73rd east longitudinal parallel, from which the name of this battle is derived, the Battle of the 73 Easting can thus be etched in the annals of great tank battles.
One obvious element of the series goes right along with the high-tech nature of the American response in the Gulf War—the tank battle is carefully reconstructed with 3D computer animation (CGI). This is animation to match any found in the best combat computer or video games, and it adds great clarity to showing how the battle played out. I suspect this will be a strength of the series and will also be effective in capturing previous armored combat—though animators will be working overtime to recreate the thousands of vehicles involved in the Battle of Kursk. In addition to the tank action, CGI is used in the description of tanks involved (among them the M1A1 Abrams and the T-92) and their weapons systems.
But this would all be a video game without the history to go with it. Tank commanders and other officers from Eagle and Ghost troops of the 2nd Regiment—the vanguard of the U. S. Seventh Corps that flanked the IRG to the west and aggressively attacked Iraqi armor—join Dr. Kenneth Pollack, author of Arabs at War, in giving an overview of the action. More importantly, army veterans relate yard-by-yard details of the roughly 90-minute principal battle. They not only recount their own decisions and actions, they assess the performance of Soviet-made Iraqi armor, the precise battle plans of Iraqi field commanders, and the bravery of individual comrades and enemy soldiers.
There’s also a fair amount of G. I. humor present, such as a description of how Ride of the Valkyries was swapped for the propaganda warfare loudspeaker announcements encouraging surrender as the tanks crossed the enemy border. Another time, a captured English-speaking Iraqi officer mocks a picture of Erwin Rommel inside one of the tanks. In fact, the Americans studied the tactics of Rommel, Guderian and other Wehrmacht armor visionaries. Study, practice and technology were key elements to support the superior performance of American equipment in this battle, which at times was fought in blinding sandstorms against a dug-in Iraqi defense.
Future installments in the ten-part series cover all the well-known tank clashes: Kursk (2 parts), Golan Heights, El Alamein and five actions in the Allied advance across Western Europe. I don’t suppose any action by tanks in World War I, Korea, Vietnam, the Pacific in World War II or conflicts since the Gulf War could be considered great tank battles—but with the technology now developed, a number of future possible program themes involving tanks could emerge. And that’s something I think every military history enthusiast can get behind.
For additional showtimes, see the schedule on the Military Channel.
Jay Wertz is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He is also the author of The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian’s Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. His most recent publication is War Stories: The Pacific, Vol. I, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, published by Weider History Publications.