One thing that is undeniably “British” is the love of a good underdog story and British military history is filled with examples of just that. The Harrier in the Falklands. The Swordfish bomber attack on Taranto harbour. The evacuation of Dunkirk. That’s to name but a few. In 1991 on the eve of the ground war to liberate Kuwait and destroy Iraq’s mighty army one of the underdogs was certainly the British Challenger tank.
221 Challenger tanks were eventually deployed to Saudia Arabia to liberate Kuwait and operated under the guise of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division supporting the US Army’s VII Corps. As the tanks deployed there were worried muffles in the Ministry of Defence and amongst military analysts about how well they would perform especially in the face of Iraqi armoured forces who were superior in number and had extensive tank vs tank combat experience following the Iran-Iraq War.
The reason for this is that the Challenger had developed quite an unenviable reputation at the start of the 1990s. In service it had displayed very poor reliability and this was the source of much frustration amongst crews and commanders. Even worse however was the stigma of having finished last in the prestigious Canadian Army Trophy tank competition held in West Germany in 1987 against tanks and crews from all over NATO. Despite the MoD highlighting several key factors for this poor performance the stigma remained and so when the Challenger deployed to the Gulf it had a lot to prove.
Prove itself it did. During the course of the 100 hour ground war the Challenger had completely reversed its reliability problems and achieved an enviable serviceability record; a testament to the hard work and dedication of the support crews who keep these vehicles going. In combat it was the superior of anything it came up against and by the end of the three day offensive Challengers accounted for some 200 Iraqi tanks destroyed or captured along with numerous armoured and ‘soft’ vehicles.
During the offensive one Challenger finally laid to rest the doubts anyone had over the capability of the type with a single shot. That shot was made over a staggering range of 5,100m (3 miles) with a Depleted Uranium (DU) round – the longest confirmed tank kill in history!
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Ian Stewart, said after the poor showing of the Challenger at the Canadian Army Trophy in 1987;
I do not believe that the performance of tanks in the artificial circumstances of a competition, such as the recent Canadian Army Trophy, is a proper indication of their capability in war.
Less than four years later he was proven right.