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The War List: Great Tank Commanders

By Jon Guttman 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: February 10, 2012 
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German tank commander Captain Michael Wittmann (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-299-1802-08; Photo: Scheck)
German tank commander Captain Michael Wittmann (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-299-1802-08; Photo: Scheck)

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Led most lethal tank attack
Capt. Michael Wittmann, German, World War II
Credited with destroying 138 tanks, 132 antitank guns, and uncounted other vehicles on the Russian front and at Normandy, SS-Hauptsturmführer Wittmann is best known for his rampage against the British 7th Armored Division outside Villers-Bocage in June 1944, devastating as many as 14 tanks, 2 antitank guns, and 15 other vehicles in 15 minutes. He was finally cornered and killed in his Tiger I tank by five British or Canadian Shermans on August 8, 1944.

Top tank commander in modern history
Lt. Zwi Greengold, Israeli, Yom Kippur War
During the Battle of Golan Heights in 1973, "Zwicka" Greengold of the 188th "Barak" (Lightning) Brigade organized a small scratch force that prevented two large Syrian armored formations from breaking through Israeli lines. Commanding from a series of a half dozen Centurion tanks as each was knocked out, Greengold fought for 20 hours, destroying between 20 and 40 Syrian vehicles before dropping to the ground, wounded, burned, and exhausted, with the words, "I can't anymore." He was awarded the Itur HaGvura, Israel's highest medal of valor.

World War II's top tank strategist
Marshal Georgy Zhukov, Russian
Zhukov made his mark using tanks to flank and annihilate the Japanese 23rd Division at Khalkin Gol in August 1939, as Japan attempted to expand its control from occupied Manchuria into Soviet Mongolia. He went on to integrate armor into the Red Army and win the war's greatest land campaigns, including Moscow (1941), Stalingrad (1942), Kursk (1943), lifting the siege of Leningrad (1944), Operation Bagration (1944), and taking Berlin (1945).

Top tank ace in history
Sgt. Kurt Knispel, German, World War II
Advancing from loader to gunner to commander in Panzer IVs, Tigers, and Tiger IIs on the Russian front and in Normandy, Hungary, and Moravia, Knispel was officially credited with 168 Allied tanks destroyed—including a T-34 hit at almost two miles away—more tanks than any other tanker ever. He was killed in action on April 28, 1945, at age 23, just days before Germany surrendered.

Invented modern armored combined-arms doctrine
Lt. Gen. John Monash, Australian, World War I
As commander of Australian Corps, Monash deftly integrated well-coordinated artillery barrages, armor of the British 5th Tank Brigade, airplanes (for close support and to transport supplies to his front-line forces), and a reinforcing complement of American troops to take the French village of Le Hamel on July 4, 1918, in a surprising setback to the advancing Germans. 

Father of armored blitzkrieg
Gen. Heinz Guderian, German, World War II
Putting Monash's combined-arms mechanized tactics and postwar theory into high-speed practice, Guderian synthesized the blitzkrieg strategy that helped Germany overrun Poland in 1939. At the Meuse River in 1940 he ignored orders to halt and thrust deep into France. Ironically, following victories in Russia, he lost his field command after prudently retreating before the Soviet counterattack outside Moscow in 1941.

Superb field commander of armored forces
Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Maczek, Polish, World War II
Maczek was the only Allied commander to lead armored units from the start of the war—in Poland in 1939—to the end. Among other feats, in 1944 he commanded the Polish 1st Armored Division of II Canadian Corps that played a key role in closing the Falaise Pocket at Chambois. He topped off his distinguished career by capturing Wilhelmshaven in May 1945. 

Top U.S. tank commander in the war
Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams, American, World War II
I'm supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army," Patton once said, "but I have one peer—Abe Abrams." Leading the 37th Tank Battalion from the front, Abrams and the crew of his own M4 Sherman tank, Thunderbolt, are estimated to have destroyed about 50 German armored fighting vehicles.

 

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33 Responses to “The War List: Great Tank Commanders”


  1. 1
    Jes Lewis says:

    Typical of the Anit American "History Channel" to flaunt foreign commanders, while leaving out the best. George Patton could have easily kicked all of their asses.

    • 1.1
      Mark says:

      Amen on George Patton.

    • 1.2
      Brian Monaghan says:

      If you consider chasing an already broken Army across France then yes, Patton is the greatest. Too bad when he came to any woods his finger automatically went two knuckles deep into his right nostril and he began scratching his rear. The end.

    • 1.3
      David says:

      Patton was a great general but the list was specifically tank commanders and emphasized tactical rather than strategic leaders. A list of generals commanding armor would likely have included Patton and his rival Rommel. While not to diminish Patton's skill it is worth noting that unlike his German rivals Patton had, for the most part, a well supplied army with air superiority. Without the supply chain and air cover advantage we can only hypothesize about how history may have turned out.

    • 1.4
      Pav says:

      Hardly.
      "Blood and Guts" prefered your blood and your guts.
      Read up on Zhukov and then compare notes.
      Patton was buds with his superiors while Zhukov at any moment could have been eliminated at a whim. He did come close to it too. That makes for dangerous working conditions!

      • 1.4.1
        Terry says:

        Pav,

        Zhukov, while a great commander, did not have to be cognizant of his casualties, as did Patton. Historically, Patton was not a favorite of Eisenhower. Eisenhower, tolerated Patton because Patton won battles. Zhukov did enjoy the support of Stalin which was worth a lot.

      • 1.4.2
        Attilashrugs says:

        Ironically Patten WAS eliminated in a convenient car "accident" when his anti-Soviet premonitions became too noisome.

  2. 2
    Sebastien says:

    What about Kurt Knispel…

    History forgotten greatest tank commander…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Knispel

  3. 3
    Sebastien says:

    Nevermind, just found him

  4. 4
    Jozy Wales says:

    Patton was overrated. He made the terrible decision to choose the Sherman instead of the much better Pershing . How can a tank commander be one of the best when a PFC could see the Pershing had a more powerful gun , and thicker armor. However, the "genius" Patton the tank which had several unflattering nicknames such as "The Ranson Lighter". Lights the first time every time (catches on fire when hit) , "Death Traps" and "Tommy Cooker" (burning British tankers).

    • 4.1
      David says:

      I don't think Patton necessarily picked the Sherman over the Pershing. The Pershing wasn't available until later in the war. I think late 1944/early 1945 was the earliest the Pershing was fielded. So, Patton did the best with what he had.

      • 4.1.1
        Jozy Wales says:

        Patton and the equally stupid Leslie McNair blocked the development of the Pershing. The Pershing appeared so late in the war because of the total incompetence of Leslie McNair who was supported in his insane insistence of continuing to rely on the M4 Sherman and not develop the M26 Pershing by the “God of War” Patton. (Ref “Tanks, An Illustrated History of their impact “Spencer Tucker. Gen. Bruce Clark, who commanded the American armor during the tank battles in Lorraine, in September 1944 and at St. Vith in the Ardennes in December 1944, later noted: “Of all the people I know, Patton was the worst of all versed in the tanks". Patton’s opposition to the Pershing's development which definitely could have been ready for the invasion of Normandy had not incompetents like McNair and (sorry to criticize America's favorite WWII General) Patton blocked its development. was described in M26/M46 Pershing Tank 1943-53 by Steven J. Zaloga.

    • 4.2
      LeBon says:

      Pershing can not cross most of the bridges in europe just like its German counterparts.

  5. 5

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  6. 6
    Oscar Madison says:

    Is there a reason why non-Army historians always leave SSG Lafayette Poole out of this discussion? We learn abut this guy at the Armor Center when we go to Basic Training, PLDC/WLC, ALC and SLC… junior officers in the Armor Corps event know about this guy when they attend the Armor Officer Basic Course (now refered to as BOLC II)… come on… all you list is Officers here… NCOs are the first great tankers. Hittman might have been the Tank Commander but Bobby Wohl pulled the triggers.

    Lest we forget SSG Poole, Americas Great Tank Ace!

    AN ARMOR CORP MAJOR

    • 6.1
      Chris "toadman" Hughes says:

      I wasn't surprised by SSG Poole not being mentioned. Only those who really know about US WW II armor or have been to the Armor Schools have heard of him or know about him. What a shame.

      Chris "toadman" Hughes
      http://www.toadmanstankpictures.com
      http://toadmanstankpictures.blogspot.com/

    • 6.2
      Alan Hamby says:

      I second Lafayette Poole. During WWII, he destroyed 258 enemy vehicles in only 83 days, commanding 3 different Shermans all named "In The Mood" and all of which were shot out from under him. The only reason he wasn't in combat longer is because he lost one of his legs in a German ambush and even that didn't stop his service career. He served in Korea and stayed in the Army until 1960.

  7. 7
    chas m says:

    German and Russian tankers had alot more to shoot at!!! Patton of course was a great general and tanker but he was still a nut!
    Zukov is one of the most underrated commanders during WWII because being russian he didn't get the press others did! same for the German ones but since they were Nazi bastards i don't care!!!

    • 7.1
      David says:

      Agreed, but not all german soldiers were Nazis. The SS units were the more politically indoctrinated units. German regular army units often resented the SS units since they got the better equipment. However, many of the German regular army units fought out of a sense of patriotic duty rather than Nazi ideology.

  8. 8
    Pierre Corbeil says:

    How about René Prioux, the commander of the Corps de Cavalerie, who on May 12-13, 1940, stopped the 680 tanks of the XVIth Panzer Corps, with his 380 tanks (albeit generally superior to most of the German tanks) ? This was the first tank vs tank battle, and both sides saw themselves as an élite force in the arena ?

    • 8.1
      MKSTEEL says:

      Thanks for mentioning him an unsung French hero who stopped the Germans cold in one of the only major French tactical victories in the 1940 campaign. Prioux proved that met en masse with properly organized French armoured counterattacks, the Germans could be tactically defeated. Too bad the French defensive strategy was so flawed and did not emphasize rapid operations. Another French tanker worth mentioning was Pierre Billotte, who's Char B-1 bis Heavy MBT knocked out 2 Panzer IV's & 11 Panzer III's, as well as several anti-tank guns, during the Battle of Stonne in the course of the 1940 French Campaign.

    • 8.2
      MKSTEEL says:

      The numbers of tanks at the Battle of Hannut vary. I have a source which quotes 546 French tanks, versus 722 German panzers, but almost all sources show a disparity, with the Germans outnumbering the French by around 200 tanks, regardless of the exact numbers. However in the course of the battle, French technical superiority is telling, ESPECIALLY in the case of the excellent Somua S-35s medium tanks of the 2/3rd DLMs. Which easily proved a match and often superior in combat effectivness compared to the Czech 35t/38t, as well as Panzer III/IVs utilized by the 3/4th Panzer Divisions. This easily proves that French armour could perform magnificently in tactical battles when employed en masse, too bad French strategy ran counter to this gainful employment of the French armoured forces, instead seeing their formation scattered in support of infantry divisions in scattered battalions, rather than employed in massed divisions for rapid strategic deployment tragically enough.

      • 8.2.1
        Pierre Corbeil says:

        The DLM were indeed mixed units, and their dragoons were effective against tanks. We must be careful in counting tanks, since in French terminology (very important in French thinking) auto-mitrailleuses (which might be translated as armoured cars) were in effect small tanks, better armed and armoured that PzIs or even PzIIs. The fact that the French mission was essentially defensive gave an advantage to the dragoons and anti-tank units, the Germans being forced to attack.
        The situation is very much a paper-scissors-rock game, and I have in fact designed a game about Hannut built on that principle. I have had no reaction from Decision Games, unfortunately. Perhaps I will publish it myself eventually.
        You are quite right that the French high command badly misused the DLM, using them to plug holes, and such. Prioux, in his book, argues that if the French had stayed out of Belgium and lain in wait, his forces could have trapped the Germans as they debouched from the Meuse. The French generals could not break the mindset of re-constructing a line before counter-attacking, and this cost them in May 1940.

      • 8.2.2
        MKSTEEL says:

        The Army High Command also squandered the 3 DCR in reserve around Rheims, the 1st at Flavion, the 2nd at Signy-l'Abbaye, and the 3rd at Stonne. Only the 4th which had hastily finished assembling under DeGaulle, at Laon & Montcornet launched effective, but sadly limited and isolated, counterattacks against the German Panzers Corps. which by this time was advancing en masse, in echelon toward the coast at Abeville.

  9. 9
    mattias says:

    I think that the greatest tank commander who has ever lived is Erwin rommel AKA (desert fox) he destroyed the frence panzer armee in europe and innvaded africa with the briliant tactic "blitzkrieg" and that the only way patton defeted rommel was because of the shortage in tanks in the panzerwaffe.

    • 9.1
      Pierre Corbeil says:

      With all due respect, this is not a very meaningful comment. Leaving aside the problems of spelling and syntax, all three points are inexact.
      1) Rommel did not much confront any French armoured units; his role was to drive into France and destabilize the front, and he certainly did not destroy a French armoured army. The closest equivalent would have been the Cavalry Corps in Belgium, and Rommel never was involved.
      2) Blitzkrieg describes the fast-paced invasion of France. ER never invaded Africa, but rather went to help the Italian ally. His enemy was English, though we can always include Leclerc's brigade, not a major player.
      3) Patton never really confronted ER either, since he was theatre commander and no longer commanding armoured units. After July 20, 1944, Rommel no longer commanded anything, being mostly dead.
      Patton is not of course a specifically armour specialist, since his success was as Third Army commander, at a more strategic, or perhaps operational role.

      • 9.1.1
        MKSTEEL says:

        Actually Rommel ambushed the French 1st Armoured Division at Flavion with his 7th Panzer & 5th Panzer in a double envelopment during the 1940 Battle of France campaign. Mind you they were low on fuel and not expecting an attack that morning, typical of plodding French doctrine during the 1940 campaign, too bad because they had such SUPERB TANKS like the Somua S-35 Medium Tank and Char B-1 bis Heavy Tank, France's MBT.

  10. 10
    Tim Gilliam says:

    I do agree with Michael Wittman's spot, but it has been noted that his charge single-handedly into that column was "not well thought out." But I give the props for such quick reaction, its not if he made a wrong choice or a right choice, it was the fact he made a choice indeed.

  11. 11
    Bixby says:

    Just curious but is this about Tank Commanders, Division Commanders, Army Commanders or ?

    Did some of these Commanders ever ride in a tank during combat or a war? I have a relative that was a "Tank Commander" that really rode in and commanded a tank during combat.

  12. 12

    [...] policías o bomberos, algunos más aguerridos jugábamos a serpilotos de avión o comandantes de tanque. Cierto, los juegos se quedaban en la imaginación. Para los niños que imaginaban manejar un [...]

  13. 13
    widowmaker says:

    Gents,

    Look up Azi Aslanov. If most of Russian tank commanders were underrated, this fella was underrated by Russians for his actions during WWII.

  14. 14
    raj says:

    The German tank aces were the best as they fought the entire Allied forces single-handed for continuous 6 years. They had best tanks but constantly reducing numbers as compared with the US and Russians. There are few Allied tank aces as they were so many against few Germans and on the other hand, the Germans faced so many Allied tanks to shoot at. Allied tanks were of no match to much lethal and technologically superior German tanks.

    • 14.1
      Pierre Corbeil says:

      The first sentence of this comment is chronologically meaningless ??
      German tanks never had technological superiority in general. The French Somua and B1bis tanks were superior to contemporary German tanks in 1940. The Russian KV and T34 were superior in armour and firepower. The Panther and Tiger were created to give the German tankers a chance against these Russian tanks, but in the meantime the Russians had built larger and more powerful tanks.
      We can agree that Panther and Tiger tanks were superior to the American Shermans, and contemporary English tanks. German succcesses were due to efficient tactics and operational adaptation in all levels of command.



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