Tanks - whats the big deal?

I was watching a WWII movie and there was this German tank advancing. The British and US soldiers were spraying it with machinegun and rifle fire as well as firing mortars at it. All to no effect.

The tank was firing its machine guns and its main cannon and massacring the allied troops.

It seems to me however that all it would take would be one person to sneak up to a tank from behind, staying low, and just drop a grenade through the slit from which the machine gun was firing, or fire a machine gun through this opening, or drop a grenade down the barrel of the main cannon. Or, maybe, plant explosive around the hatch at the top to open it.

Tanks are only good for “distance” fighting. If you could approach one and actually climb on it then you would be invulnerable. And you could decide your next move from there.

They have this image of being the ultimate ground fighting weapon because they are so well armoured and have such powerful weaponry but it seems like they have this fatal flaw. A whole army firing at it may not do much good but one person who’s good at sneaking up to things would be able to destroy it.

Have I got this wrong? If not, why dont we just do this to them all the time instead of incurring casualties by just firing at them?

Getting onboard might prove a little tough, i.e., actually approaching the tank without getting nailed. And tanks work in concert often enough. I’ve read accounts of American tankers in the Pacific during WW II who related that they would spray each other down with machine gun fire when Japanese troops would climb up on them.

I don’t know if it would work on a positive pressure tank (one that maintains higher than outside air pressure within the crew space to prevent the entry of chemicals or radioactive material), but I’ve read that the Cheks were able to take out some Russian tanks in '68 with molotov cocktails.

You’re probably right about one tank in isolation, but tanks rarely fight that way and, in fact, try very hard not to get in that situation.

In WWII, tanks were usually accompanied by infantry. The infantry protected the tanks from the attacks you’re talking about and used the tanks for cover from attackers at a distance. I have no idea if the movies are accurate, but the final battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan depict this kind of use. In that scene, the “good guys” laid an ambush for approaching German tanks, but the tanks used scouts to see if they really wanted to go there.

I believe that you are entirely correct; this is a weakness of armored vehicles. Indeed that is why we still have the “poor bloody infantry.”

If I’m not mistaken, armor that lacks supporting infantry, especially if there is a lot of cover available, gets eaten up pretty quickly.

But out in the open (e.g. the deserts of Iraq), no infantry can get close. Also, the tanks are moving quite rapidly. In closer quarters, such as an urban environment, the tanks are supported by ground troops. Each protects the other.

BTW, nowadays, we have personal antitank weapons as well. All that comes to mind offhand is the LAW (light antitank weapon).

However, IANAS (soldier). Most of my info comes from (very) dimly recalled John Keegan books.

Well, for one thing, there are the machine guns you mention to shoot at someone who is trying to sneak up on it. And they are mobile, after all, and are not likely to stand still (they can go at thirty or forty miles an hour over most terrain, much faster than a man can run). They are also full of people who have just as much objection to dying as the people outside, and who are likely to see people sneaking up on them and Take Steps.

In a way, it is like those knights of the Middle Ages who were supposedly weighed down by tons of armor, and were too immobile to be dangerous. Those unwieldy knights kept the un-armored and nimble peasants pretty firmly under their thumbs, and they didn’t do so by making themselves unable to fight. Same (almost) with tanks. Small arms like rifles and machine guns have no effect on tanks, and artillery countermeasures are complicated by the fact that tanks are mobile and don’t stand still to get shot at. Barbed wire doesn’t stop a tank, as became painfully obvious during WWI, and even bazookas and modern anti-tank weapons like TOW missiles give you essentially one shot. If you miss, the tank comes over and uses its machine gun/flamethrower/other anti-personnel unpleasantness to make your life interesting for as long as it lasts.

Best anti-tank weapon is the tank killer plane like the Warthog. More mobile, more firepower, and the tank can’t fire straight up fast enough to shoot down the plane. Failing that, another tank. Failing that, usually good footgear so you can beat feet out of town before the tank crew notices you and turns you into bloody hamburger.


There is no “slit” for the machine gun, it is mounted in its own armored turret-like device. There is generally a machine gun mounted alongside the cannon, so that anyone trying to put something into the cannon muzzle can rather easily be shot. The cannon, itself, is generally mounted higher off the ground than a man stands, so that it is rather difficult to push something into the muzzle–and it extends out beyond the hull of the tank, so standing on the tank does not give one access to the muzzle.

Actually, it is possible to disable a tank (particularly a WWII era tank) with something like a molotov cocktail, but few infantry troops carry around glass containers and gasoline that they can put together when they need to disable a tank.

There is also the small matter of actually sneaking up on the tank. While they do have somewhat restricted visibility, they are not designed so that no one can see out. On any sort of open field, it would be pretty hard to just wander around behind it and do mean things. (In real battle conditions, there would be multiple tanks that could provide covering fire for each other, and often there will be supporting infantry to provide further protection.)

If it was as easy as you suppose for an individual to stop a tank, Hungary would have been free for several weeks longer in 1956.

Please remember that you were watching a movie. (The German Panther was most likely an old U.S. M-47–the whole batch of which seem to have been sold directly to Hollywood without ever seeing service in the U.S. Army.) The writers made both sides do stupid things for dramatic effect, realizing that their audience was more likely young boys rather than actual cavalry veterans.

Uh…, make that Czechs. As has been noted tanks have historically worked with infantry that protected them. Now, with tanks like the M1A1 Abrams that can attain speeds of ~60 m.p.h. an opposing infantryman has little chance of climbing up on them.

And, of course, if they were easily defeatable by infantry, infantry would easily defeat them.

I’d guess the best tactic for a ground pounder to pursue would be to try and disable the wheels and/or tracks.

I take your points about covering fire, however:

  • the infantry standing around protecting the tank have no protection from your own sides fire and mortars. So they may not last long.

  • Tanks move fast now but presumably they are generally stationary when firing.

  • Once you’re on the tank you could just plant plastic explosive (C4 or semtex) around all the guns - machine guns, cannon etc. If you disable the tanks weapons you disable the tank - it just turns into a big heavy car driving around then.

Well, they’re not standing around - they’re doing the same things your infantry is doing, and they’ve got tanks to help 'em.

Most modern tanks can aim and fire on the move.

As noted more than once above - there is only the slimmest chance you could actually get on the tank to begin with, and once there the tankers’ support (infantry and companion tanks) are not going to leave you alone while you plant explosives around the place.

Listen Xanakis, you’re right that a motivated individual can close with an enemy tank and disable it through a variety of means. But the key is that you have to close with the tank. And the tank is covered with armor and machine guns and cannons. If you get TOO the tank, then you’re in good shape. But you stand a pretty good chance of getting killed before that. Now, a commander might feel that it would be worth it to sacrifice a few infantrymen to take out the tank.

But for some funny reason the infantrymen have the aversion to charging tanks. Because while you really do have a good shot at taking out the tank you have a really really good chance of getting killed.

The Japanese in WWII had similar ideas that you do, and they made good use of their well known fanatical devotion and glorification of suicide. Infantrymen were designated tank hunters and given the job of killing the tank. Most of these anti-tank weapons weren’t explicitly designed to kill the tank hunter when used, but tank hunting was essentially a suicide mission.

But, if you had some cover, and there were no screening enemy infantry then you had a good shot at taking out the tank before you got killed.

I’ve seen the footage of an Abrams running at seemingly full speed (40-50 MPH) over rough terrain and the barrel of the cannon is perfectly stable. It’s actually quite amazing to see them firing on the run, but it makes them extremely deadly and difficult to disable.

I’m no soldier, but I work with them often, mostly helicopter pilots. I overheard two of them talking once, and one said he had a buddy in tanks.

The other said “You know someone in armor?, sorry to hear about him.” To these guys, being in a tank is like holding up a big red SHOOT ME sign.

If it was as easy as xanakis believes for Infantry to defeat armour the DATS (Dumb-Ass Tankers) wouldn’t have such wonderful nick-names such as Crunchies or Track Grease for the grunts.

Also, kellymccauley, while Rotorheads think armour is a big, beautiful target; guess what the ADA (Air Defense Arty) guys think of helicopters…?

Sure, if you disable a tank’s weapons it’s just a big heavy car running around, but it’s a big fast brutal heavy car. Haven’t you ever seen Battlebots? It’s always the basic wedges that win. :slight_smile:

It’s always a matter of getting the other guy to fight on your terms.

If a tank is on its lonesome in closed terrain (forest or - better - urban), infantry stands a decent chance of closing with it and destryoing it. Close-up visibility from inside the tank is really bad. Most light infantry AT weapons won’t punch through a modern tank’s front armour, so you’ll need to maneuver for a side, rear or top shot.

Of course, a competent tank commander wouldn’t dream of ever ending up in that situation in the first place. Closed terrain is the hunting ground for the infantryman, and while infantry units might have a tank or two along for fire support and punching holes in walls, they’ll be sure to take really good care of them.

However, if you’re able to close with a modern tank, it’s most likely because it’s immobilized. You’ll find no openings for your grenades. What you need is a decent explosive charge (10 pounds or so) with a timer, someone to give you covering fire and some sort of cover near by. It’s not recommended, unless you really, really want that medal.

S. Norman

Agree with what’s been said above. But you have to remember that most modern tanks have a turret which can rotate 360 degrees, and tank turrets tend to have a secondary machine-gun armament, to protect the tank against exactly the attacks you describe. The OP’s suggestion of “sneaking up from behind” sounds to me very much like trying to jab a pin in a dinosaur’s backside. It might work, but if the dinosaur spots you, you’ll get squashed. :wink:

OTOH, a real-world example of the situation the OP describes occurred during the battle of Kursk, in 1943. The Germans deployed a heavy tank destroyer, the Ferdinand (IIRC about 90 of them took part in the battle). It had a superb gun and very thick frontal armour. It was expected to do very well against the Russian tanks. It didn’t have a rotating turret, nor any secondary armament. When one got bogged down, or lost a track to a mine, it was therefore completely helpless to an infantryman sneaking round the back and taking potshots at it with his (otherwise pathetically inadequate) anti-tank rifle. This was the fate of many Ferdinands during the battle.

Tank designers since then have taken account of this weakness - following the experience of the Ferdinand, the Germans employed sophisticated anti-infantry devices on their tanks, such as close-support mortars.

Basically, the design of tanks and anti-tank weapons is an archetypal “arms-race”. Every advance on one side leads to a corresponding counter-advance on the other side.

In WW2 the Russians…err Soviets trained dogs to crawl under enemy tanks with explosives attached.
This was effective enough for them to even have some of the dogs and handlers in their great victory parade in Moscow.(so said Suvorov in his book Spetznaz)
They were not effective if you go by this sight

Pick which to believe. At least it was a creative way of taking down a tank.

Excuse the hijack but on a related note, the Soviets had another innovative use for dogs in that war. I have a Russian friend who had relatives in the Red Army. He swears they had dogs that were exclusively used to lick casualties’ wounds. This supposedly had some kind of antiseptic effect although I’ve seen what my dog does with his mouth when he thinks he’s not being watched. I guess these Army dogs must have been really well trained.{

I have a coworker who was an M1 driver in the Army. He says a soldier probably wouldn’t be able to get on a tank because tanks operate in sections of two, each tank covering the other. Also, if a soldier was able to climb onto a modern tank, there isn’t much he could do because the hatches lock from inside, and there are no openings to drop things in. (Actually, he laughed and said the guy could ride around on the turret all day if he wanted to, and he didn’t seem to think one soldier was much of a threat.)

Also, he said his division was all armor with no infantry, and he didn’t think infantry support was necessary.

You go right ahead and do that. I’ll stay down here in the fox hole and radio the tank position to someone with a bigger gun than me.