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.
This is a well illustrated reference book chronicling tank development in nearly every country in the world that has produced tanks at some point. I picked it up off Amazon for less than £5 including postage and packing several years ago and have read it right the way through probably several times now. I used to take it to work with me and read an entry or two during my lunch break which meant it lasted me a good few weeks.
What I liked…
This is rich in technical detail about the tanks. Miller is clear enough in his writing to help you build a good mental picture of the vehicle he is describing. If that’s not enough there is an abundance of photographs to feast upon and each entry has a detailed specification sheet before the text. There are a wealth of AFVs listed in here and there were a large number I had never heard of which is a positive. There is plenty of development history in most of the entries and the text is quite technical in places. The chronological layout of the entries for each nation help build up a good picture of the evolution of that country’s tank line.
What I didn’t like…
The value of a small number of the pictures are questionable. They either have limited recognition value or are reproduced quite poorly. Two whole pages are devoted to a single picture of several T-62 tanks but it is so grainy and abstract that when I first saw it I almost couldn’t make it out. Fortunately these are the exceptions. While the technical detail is rich the operational history and experience is quite limited. One thing I discovered and thought was unacceptable in a published book were a number of spelling and grammar mistakes. I am guilty of making mistakes too but I am not being paid to write nor do I have a publisher with a quality control department. I also noted that the font seemed to change in several entries which I think was done to squeeze more information on to two pages rather than have the entry spill over on to a third page. One final criticism that I am only including in the interest of fairness is that some entries seemed unnecessary. Four pages are devoted to the French AMX-32 even though it existed in prototype form only. The average number of pages for an operational tank is two to three.
This is a good book for people who are starting their interest in armored fighting vehicles and is well worth picking up. Despite one or two of its flaws I would recommend it. As I said I discovered a lot of new vehicles I never heard of before which is one of the advantages of a book over the internet. On the internet you have to look for new types but here they are all listed for you to browse.