The most pitched tank battle in the history of warfare was fought not against the Nazis in Europe or North Africa—but just 30 years ago, in the desert of Iraq.
Operation Desert Sabre, the four-day ground offensive of the six-week military operation known as Desert Storm, involved a fierce tank-against-tank campaign that outstripped even World War II’s savage battle of Kursk, which saw some 6,000 German and Soviet tanks battle over a grueling six-week period.
“Kursk was bigger if you consider the entire campaign,” says retired colonel and historian Gregory Fontenot, who commanded a tank battalion in what was perhaps Desert Storm’s most intense few hours—an overnight free-for-all that participants later called Fright Night.
“But no battle ever occurred—before or since Desert Storm—in which more than 3,000 tanks, plus thousands more armored vehicles, fought in the course of not quite 36 hours.”
In three epic encounters—dubbed 73 Easting, Medina Ridge, and Fright Night (officially known as the Battle of Norfolk)—armored behemoths from both sides relentlessly went muzzle-to-muzzle, turning the sprawling desert into history’s most concentrated tank shooting gallery.
For the millions of Americans who stayed glued to their TVs in late February 1991, the news coming from Kuwait was unrelentingly triumphant. Allied troops were thoroughly trouncing the forces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, overrunning their positions and chasing them out of Kuwait, the small, oil-rich country Hussein’s army had invaded the previous August.
News reports showed fleets of allied tanks roaring across the desert like a stampede of buffalo, routing Iraq’s Russian-made tanks, blasting them into plumes of fire and smoke. Swarms of Iraqi soldiers were reportedly surrendering without a fight. Grim images of burned Iraqi corpses, their charred hands curled in death, seemed to serve as object lessons in the perils of challenging the might of the world’s “good guys.”
When it was all over, less than a hundred hours after the final offensive started, those of us watching TV heard the casualty reports: 292 coalition troops killed, compared to tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers. Sitting there on our comfy couches, we looked at each other and said, “Well, that was easy.”
Only it wasn’t easy.
From the moment Iraq invaded its smaller neighbor to the south on August 1, 1990, an array of world nations condemned the action. Over the next few months, led by the United States, a massive military force from 35 nations was assembled in adjacent Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly, the military presence was aimed at keeping Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia. But it was no secret that, if Iraq persisted in occupying Kuwait, the coalition would act to push Iraq’s forces back across their own border.
“First of all, don’t ever say it was a hundred-hour war—that’s a disservice to the Air Force and other military personnel who began engaging with the Iraqis in January,” says Fontenot, sitting in the den of his home in Lansing, Kansas. Behind him hangs a painting of two U.S. tanks charging toward the viewer, “the way the Iraqis saw them.”
On January 17, 1991, the coalition began air strikes against Iraq, bombing missile bases and other military installations. Meanwhile, ground troops in Saudi Arabia trained for desert warfare while there were isolated skirmishes between the two sides along the Saudi border.
In mid-February, coalition forces seemed to be concentrating their attention on Kuwait City, the occupied nation’s seaport capital. As warships gathered offshore, the Iraqis became convinced the expected assault would focus on the coastline.
But while the Iraqis were preoccupied with Kuwait’s front porch, the coalition attacked through the back door: On February 24, one of the largest forces of tanks ever assembled—more than 3,000—plus thousands of armored support vehicles and infantry roared across the vast, lightly guarded Saudi-Iraqi border that stretched to the west. Commanding General Norman Schwarzkopf had devised a grand scheme he called the “left hook”: Coalition tanks would rush north into Iraq for a set distance, then turn abruptly to the east, pushing toward occupied Kuwait City and destroying all enemy resistance along the way.
‘Once a tanker, always a tanker’
Paul Sousa is gazing at a hulking M1A1 Abrams tank with the affection of a middle-age man reunited with his first car. The thing is 32 feet long and weighs nearly 68 tons, but to him it’s one sweet set of wheels.
“This is my beast,” he smiles. “I was on these things for 18 years. For Desert Storm, I was in one for 100 hours straight—only came out to go to the bathroom, or help fuel, or hold a machine gun while the other guys fueled.”
Some 1,900 of these monsters were dispatched against the Iraqis in Desert Storm. The enemy had thousands of serviceable Soviet-era tanks, but nothing to match the firepower at the fingertips of Sousa, a gunner with the 1st Cavalry Division.
Modernized versions of the M1A1 are still stationed around the globe, but this particular one, sitting in a corner of the 67,000-square-foot American Heritage Museum in Stow, Massachusetts, is the only such tank on public display in the world.
Four soldiers manned the M1A1: a commander, a driver, a gunner, and a loader. These guys call themselves tankers. “Once a tanker, always a tanker,” they’re fond of saying. The commander sits up top, watching the surrounding terrain. The driver is out front, his head jutting from a hole just under the gun. To sit in the gunner’s seat, however, is to get a sense of having had a machine built around you. There’s not an inch of spare room; just an in-your-face array of equipment and ammunition.
“For me, the whole war was spent down there in the dark, looking through a periscope,” Sousa adds. “Kind of cooped up.”
Early on the morning of February 24, coalition forces secretly stretched some 300 miles along the Saudi-Iraqi border. Iraqi military officials had some suspicions, but did not act on them.
“I’ll tell you one thing—my mother had figured it out,” says Randy Richert, who served with the 1st Infantry Division. He’d trained as a tanker but found himself driving a colonel in and around moving tank formations in an unarmed Humvee, like a dolphin skipping around a pod of whales.
“My mom kept hearing on the news about all the other divisions that were amassing near Kuwait, to the east, but nothing about us. So she told her friends, ‘I think Randy’s out there in the desert somewhere.’”
Prior to Desert Storm, many of the Army’s tankers had spent the better part of a decade on M1A1s in Europe—training for the possibility of a Soviet invasion across the Iron Curtain.
“It was Cold War time,” recalls Paul Beaulieu, a gunner. “We were always on alert; always waiting for that Soviet invasion. I never dreamed I’d end up using that training somewhere in the desert, but I was ready.”
Walking around the American Heritage Museum’s M1A1, Beaulieu notes that the tank’s advanced suspension system gave it a surprisingly smooth ride, even on the roughest desert terrain. Pointing to a nearby 1960s vintage Sheridan M551 tank, which also saw service in Desert Storm, he adds, “Compared to riding in that tank over there, this is like a Cadillac.” Ironically, the Sheridan was actually built by Cadillac.
‘It was raining mud’
That first morning, the tanks, accompanied by infantry and other armored vehicles, plowed through Iraqi defenses—many of which had been nearly destroyed by earlier air attacks—as they made steady progress north.
Utterly unprepared, tens of thousands of Iraqi infantry—most of whom were teens and young men pressed into service by Saddam—fought fiercely but were severely outgunned. Many surrendered when the tanks arrived in their camps. These were not Iraq’s most skilled fighters, however. They were mere cannon fodder set up in broad perimeters in front of Iraq’s much-feared Republican Guard.
At home in the U.S., viewers saw stock film footage of M1A1 tanks speeding across a dry, flat desert under brilliantly sunny skies. But those were training films. The actual weather in Iraq was dreadful: Rain pounded the desert for most of the offensive. Even worse, it was a sticky, oily rain—caused by precipitation mixing with the billowing smoke from Kuwait’s oil fields, which the Iraqis had set afire.
The invasion’s swift success surprised even Schwarzkopf, who ordered his troops to push on well ahead of schedule. The decision increased the coalition’s advantage, but took a toll on the already-fatigued troops.
“Sleep just didn’t happen,” says Richert. “The minute you stopped, you’d fall asleep. Maybe you’d get a 20-minute nap, and that would be it for the next eight hours.”
There were a number of tank-to-tank skirmishes in the first two days of the operation, but the armored war began in earnest on February 26 when the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and other units encountered Republican Guard tanks after they had made the eastward turn toward Kuwait. In one notable face-off, A Troop—led by future U.S. National Security Advisor Capt. H.R. McMaster—took a position above a dried-up river bed, and for four hours fought off wave after wave of Iraqi tanks.
Hours later, just a few miles away, the 1st Infantry Division and the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Armored Division (also known as Hell on Wheels) got into a middle-of-the-night battle with more Republican Guard tanks—Fontenot’s Fright Night.
In the dark, in the rain, in the smoke, conditions could hardly have been worse. Tanks fired on each other without being certain which side they were on. Iraqi soldiers physically swarmed the coalition tanks, attempting to find holes through which they could aim their machine guns. The tankers responded by sealing their hatches while their comrades in nearby tanks literally peppered them with machine gun fire, killing the hangers-on. (More than 75 years later, the Battle of Iwo Jima still haunts this veteran.)
The sky was illuminated with tracers. As tanks passed low hills or depressions, Iraqi fighters jumped from hiding, aiming rocket-powered grenade launchers, trying to take the tanks out from behind. Only quick action from the tank’s machine gunners prevented disaster.
“Sometimes,” says Fontenot, “it would just be lines of tanks firing away at each other. It was 360-degree battle.”
Inevitably, in the confusion and the darkness, fatal accidents happened. In his book, The First Infantry Division and the U.S. Army Transformed: Road to Victory in Desert Storm, Fontenot relates the sickening moment when an errant armor-piercing round from an M1A1 destroyed a U.S. Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, sending glitter-like sparkles skyward.
Fontenot specifically ordered his men not to shoot until they were absolutely certain it was an enemy in their sights. Still, he is haunted by what he calls the “fratricide” of that chaotic night. A combination of friendly and enemy fired killed six Americans and wounded 32.
“There were so many factors,” he says. “It was raining mud, for crying out loud. We had clouds and smoke that played tricks with visibility. Someone said visibility that night was like looking into a closet with sunglasses on.”
Fatigue also played a role, Fontenot says. “The guys saw things that they expected to see, but they weren’t really there. If you see combat vehicles coming toward you, you’re going to do something, and it might not be the right thing.”
After Fright Night, there was one major tank battle left: a 40-minute slugfest at a place called Medina Ridge, involving some 3,000 vehicles, including 348 M1A1 tanks. It was the last stand for Iraq’s Republican Guard, and they put up their best fight of the short war. Still, the M1A1’s gun range was so superior to the Iraqis’ they could fire almost with impunity. Attack helicopters and A-10 anti-tank planes flew in to help mop up.
The victory at Medina Ridge was quick, decisive—and, for many of the Americans, traumatizing. (How PTSD went from ‘shell-shock’ to a recognized medical diagnosis.)
“I don’t think my wife needs to know what took place out here,” one tanker told the New York Times. “I do not want her to know that side of me.”
From breach to cease-fire, the battles of Desert Storm lasted a bit under a hundred hours. Between 25,000 and 50,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 80,000 captured. Of the 219 U.S. soldiers who died, 154 perished in battle, too many of them in friendly fire.
About 3,300 Iraqi tanks were destroyed in desert battles and by air attack. The coalition lost 31.
A somber place
The M1A1 at the American Heritage Museum is shiny and like new. It’s a Monday, the museum is closed, and the museum’s Hunter Chaney asks if I’d like to sit inside. The answer, of course, is yes.
I need a step ladder to mount the tank’s side—a young soldier would have clambered up there like a mountain goat. I slide into the tank’s dark interior, flip down the gunner’s spring-loaded seat, and get into position. Buttons and switches control the turret blower and the armed/safe status of the 120 mm main gun. A manufacturer’s plate informs me that the turret alone, perched just above my head, weighs 23.1 tons.
The last time I saw one of these things in person was in the months after Desert Storm, during a gala, triumphant parade on the streets of Washington, D.C.
But there’s no sense of triumph in here. It’s a somber place, made all the more subdued by the fact that a man died in the seat next to mine. After the Gulf War ended, this particular M1A1 remained in the Middle East, where it was put into service during the Iraq War. On August 3, 2006, while patrolling outside of Fallujah, the tank was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED). A hunk of shrapnel tore into the neck of the commander, a young father named George Ulloa.
In a video tribute playing on a loop near the tank, Ulloa’s tearful wife talks about his love for their three children, his love for his country.
Wars can be swift; wars can seem to go on forever. And depending on your perspective, even a hundred-hour war can feel like an eternity.