WWII tank graveyard in overgrowth near an abandoned Russian military base
All images are copyrighted and used with the permission of their respective photographers
In certain corners of the globe you'll find the strangest of military cemeteries – places filled not with the bodies of fallen troops but littered with the carcasses of abandoned tanks. These once-formidable weapons of war no longer strike fear into the hearts of opposing forces; their days of rolling inexorably onwards on the teeth of steel tracks are over. Now, the armor of these behemoths is rusting and corroded, their hatches all but sealed from lack of use, and their controls never again to be manned by commanders in battle.
If looking down the barrel of a gun is an unpleasant experience, then staring into the gigantic cylinder of a tank’s cannon must surely magnify the sense of menace tenfold – especially if there is any uncertainty as to whether the weapon is still able to fire its deadly projectile. Braving heat, cacti and other hazards, the urban explorers whose images we have collected have taken some amazing shots of tank graveyards from around the world.
The ‘60s slogan of ‘make love not war’ instantly springs to mind when looking at this cross-section of vehicular cemeteries, located everywhere from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Laos, to Germany, Kuwait and Iraq. Once a war is over, decommissioned and defunct tanks are often simply left to rust and rot. Wrecked or simply forsaken, they stand as sinister reminders of more turbulent times.
Perhaps these war machines have finally found peace. Yet whether the same can be said of the people who remember when these fighting vehicles were still in action is another matter. As we ponder such questions, we accompany these once-mighty tanks on their last mission. Rest assured, though, it’s a losing battle – and one harder than any they may have fought – as decay sets in and nature gains a stranglehold, as if attempting to reclaim what was once her own.
7. Kabul and Kandahar, Afghanistan
Afghanistan is home to at least two major tank graveyards, both situated in the country’s major cities. These cemeteries were born of the Soviet war in Afghanistan that began in 1979 and ended in the late ‘80s. One of them, lying just outside Kabul, contains a huge collection of abandoned and broken down armored vehicles left behind when the Soviet forces finally withdrew from the territory they had occupied for so long. Stripped, corroding and besmirched by graffiti, the tanks hark back to bygone days of war.
Any city over 3,500 years old is likely to have seen its share of battles, and one located along the historic trade routes of South and Central Asia is all the more likely to have been at the center of various conflicts – as Kabul can attest. The Indian Maurya Empire, the Mongols, the Mughal Empire, the British, the Soviets, the Taliban – over time, the Afghan capital has witnessed invasions and seizures of powers from these forces and more. And today, not discounting its palaces, parks and monuments, Kabul is the site of many relics of war: scarred buildings, people... not to mention tanks.
Given Afghanistan’s war-torn history, it is perhaps unsurprising that the place pictured here, known as the 'battle tank graveyard,' should also be a landmark of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city. Here, rows upon rows of Soviet T-62 tanks are gradually rusting away. During the nine-year war fought between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, the T-62 tanks supplanted the T-55 as the Soviets’ leading battle tank. These dilapidated T-62s, though, have clearly been discarded for good.
Senior Airman Kenny Holston, who took these photographs, has this to say about his first-hand experience of Kandahar’s tank graveyard: “Numerous amounts of discarded heavy warfare machinery left behind by Russian forces can be found rotting away in the vast empty fields of Afghanistan.” Some of the battered and decaying tanks are covered with spray paint markings; all are orange with rust.
Even though it is slowly corroding, there’s nothing reassuring about looking down the rugged barrel of this T-62. The once-powerful gun can, even now, instil fear in people’s hearts. Grave reminders of the Russian invasion that are unlikely to be recycled, these tanks are unlikely to be going anywhere soon. And given Afghanistan’s history since the Soviet war, neither are they likely to be the last vehicles of their kind left to such a slow and ignoble fate.
6. Unknown Desert Location, Kuwait
Pictured are some of the remnants of the Gulf War: domestically built T-72 tanks, Soviet-made T-54As, or old Chinese Type 59 and Type 63s – all vehicles used by Iraq to oppose a military onslaught against which they stood little chance. Codenamed Operation Desert Storm, the war lasted from August 1990 to February 1991, with 34 nations (led by the United States) fighting against Iraq, which had foolishly invaded Kuwait.
Here’s a close-up of the once-powerful tracks rusting away, buried in the sand like the bones of some perished beast. This really does look like a cemetery, with the half-interred remains all too visible. Some of the tanks evidently had their turrets ripped off or their armor torn apart as they were knocked out by enemy fire; others are little more than a mass of scorched and twisted metal.
Tank battles were fought both in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War. Heavy losses were suffered by the Iraqis, with dozens of tanks, trucks and armored vehicles destroyed. Coalition casualties were, however, relatively light. The Iraqi tanks were outdated and ill-equipped to deal with those of their opponents, who also had superior training. Indeed, such was the superiority of the coalition battle tanks that they could engage and destroy their Iraqi counterparts long before they were themselves in range.
This tank is still intact but is far from being in good shape. The commander’s MG, the main gun, the tracks and road wheels are still present, but neglect and the desert elements have taken their toll. Perhaps it was abandoned, or simply broke down. Whatever its fate, it is now nothing more than a metallic corpse in a desert cemetery.
5. Phonsavan, Laos
What are the old rusting carcasses of Russian tanks doing in Laos? Well, where there’s a tank, there was a war. Laos got dragged into the Vietnam War (1955- 1975) and paid dearly for it. A significant portion of the war was fought on Laotian territory, and Laos is actually reckoned to be most bombed nation on Earth. A fact that’s hard to fathom, reported by The Guardian, is that “Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973.” Truly a statistic that quantifies the utter madness of the conflict.
The war raged no less fiercely on the ground, and many then-modern tanks were used. The box-like shape of the tank wreck seen here in Phonsavan indicate that it was an amphibious tank, a PT-76, to be precise – the Soviet Army’s standard reconnaissance light tank, hundreds of which were exported to North Vietnam. Even now, some still lie all but interred in the mud, with little more than their hatches visible above the murky surface.
Outfitted with a driver’s periscope, amphibious tanks can swim once their electric bilge pumps are activated, and the flat hull is boat-shaped to decrease resistance in the water. Rusted and overgrown with grass, what these days somehow resembles a beat-up old toy was once a feared killing machine – not to mention a vehicle that must have been claustrophobic to sit inside.
4. Asmara, Eritrea
In the heart of Eritrea lies its capital, Asmara. Situated here is a gigantic truck and tank graveyard filled with hundreds – if not thousands – of rusting military machines. Trucks, tanks and other armored vehicles sit abandoned in the grass or piled on top of one another, ready, or so it seems, to outwait eternity. Explorers wanting to get a closer look should be careful. Cacti have made a home of these abandoned hulks, and guard their treasures jealously.
Yet the site in Eritrea is more than a scrapheap of wrecked military vehicles. It is also a memorial to the Eritrean War of Independence, a long and bitterly-fought conflict that lasted between 1961 and 1991. As a result of the war, Eritrea, rather than being part of Ethiopia, became one of the world’s newest independent states. Instead of simply being a mountain of junk, for many Eritreans the old (mainly Russian) vehicles tell the story of their triumph, and stand as a monument to victory.
Many of the pieces in this ramshackle living museums were apparently captured by the Eritreans, or else abandoned by the fleeing forces of Ethiopia’s military junta. As well as masses of tanks and other military vehicles, piles of used shells can be found. Yet, far from being seen as an opportunity for salvaging scrap metal, this all serves as reminder of the struggle for independence.
And independence was what Eritreans longed for. The strategically-located nation has been on the receiving end of many invasions – be it by the South Arabians, the Ottoman Turks, the Goan Portuguese, the Egyptians or the British. Modern Eritrea was largely influenced by Italy, after being colonized by Italian settlers in 1890. Italian architecture, names and occupants definitely left their mark on Asmara, which is still nicknamed ‘Piccola Roma’, or ‘Little Rome’.
Once the Italians were forced out of Eritrea by the British during WWII, the country – economically weak, yet rich in mineral resources – was federated with Ethiopia in 1951. Tension then built for ten years until the 30-year war broke out. That’s enough occupation and war for any nation to take. Let’s hope the tanks in this graveyard don’t grow in number – Eritrea and Ethiopia were again at war between 1998 and 2000 – as the tall grass continues to grow and slowly covers their forebears.
3. Camp Taji, Iraq
Camp Taji, or Camp Cooke, as it is also known, is situated 20 miles (30 km) outside of Baghdad. It’s an old Iraqi Republican Guard base and former chemical weapons plant that was taken over by US forces after the 2003 invasion that signaled the start of the Iraq War (2003-2011). Today, the site is home to a graveyard comprising hundreds of dumped Iraqi tanks and other armored military vehicles – relics of the reign of Saddam Hussein.
All of the tanks and other armored vehicles and guns have been destroyed or lie in various stages of disrepair. Most are covered in graffiti left by coalition forces, like that visible on the disabled MT-LB in the center of this image. Photographer Colonel Killgore explains: “It seems to be a thing to send a message back home: ‘Happy Birthday Marie’ and ‘I love you Jeanie,’ with a photo of the words painted on the side of a smashed up armored vehicle.” There’s a nice irony in knowing that the old killing machines now carry declarations of love.
Killgore also observes how “there is something uniquely sad about the way a dead tank looks,” and one commenter has his own amusing theory about the source of this sense of melancholy: “It's the drooping gun that does it,” he reckons. “It's probably a male thing... Lost its potency and on the scrap heap. Or maybe it's just time for tank Viagra.” An interesting hypothesis – yet why is it the other deserted tanks whose guns still point proudly to the sky seem equally dejected? Left for dead, it seems, is left for dead.
2. Vukovar, Croatia
We’re looking directly into the eye of danger as we go face-to-face with this M-84 Yugoslav battle tank – specifically, it’s muzzle at close range. This tank has remained in the city as a reminder of the Battle of Vukovar, which was fought from August to November of 1991 and was but one chapter in the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995).
As part of the 87-day siege of Vukovar, a large column of M-84s and armored personnel carriers are said to have barreled into the town, ready to flatten all that lay in their path. However, the armored vehicles of the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People's Army were defeated, and the road on which the vehicles lay stricken became known as groblje tenkova, or “graveyard of tanks” – although the hulks appear to have since been cleared away.
1. Rockensussra, Thuringia, Germany
Sometimes, a tank graveyard means good news, and isn’t simply a corroding sign of past battles fought and lost. Take this one in Germany’s Rockensussra, deep in the forests of Thuringia, about 186 miles (300 km) southwest of Berlin. Here, a good 14,200 tanks and armored personnel carriers have been dismantled over the past 20 years or so, ever since the two sides of Germany merged.
The peaceful reunification suddenly saw a surplus of military equipment – not least of which was thousands of tanks. Around half of those reduced to scrap and spare parts in Rockensussra were Russian armored vehicles from the East German Army. The rest came from the West German Army, which was forced to cut its number of tanks and other such vehicles after signing the disarmament treatment at the end of the Cold War in 1991.
The work done in Thuringia is monitored by international inspectors both onsite and via satellite to ensure the tanks meet their end in the fires of the furnace or else give up their parts for possible reuse. But how do you dismantle 25 tons of steel, built never to break?
According to Peter Koch, head of the appropriately-named firm Battle Tank Dismantling, breaking down these behemoths is possible – you only have to know how. The details are possibly less dramatic (and noisy) than one might imagine. A team of skilled workers set about the task, rather than machines. Armed with spanners (yup, it’s that hands on!) they meticulously separate each tank into its different components: from engines and axles down to smaller items like pieces of rubber and lamps. In addition, each tank contains 180 liters of oil, which has to be drained. Most of the metals are melted down, though many parts are utilized for spares.
Leave it to the Germans to come up with the ultimate in recycling! Each tank is a high-tech piece of equipment that can contain five different metal alloys, all highly sought-after on the international market. Which alloys, exactly, is a trade secret, but let’s just say that a knife maker, as an example, has used the metal of old gun barrels for making sturdy blades that sell for 500 Euros (650 USD). How’s that for a bit of upcycling?
Bonus: Culebra, Puerto Rico
The white beaches of Puerto Rico are not a place one would expect to find a tank buried in the sand. And yet one can be found in just such a location! Half buried, half rusting, the tank lies stranded like some kind of metallic whale on Flamenco Beach, on the island of Culebra. Despite the presence of the wrecked hulk, it's considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Here’s a close-up of the tank, a leftover from US Navy training exercises that used the tank for target practice. After complaints from locals on Culebra, the Navy moved to the nearby island of Vieques, but the tank remained. Strange the way it seems part of the scenery in its current state – a fact almost accentuated by the graffiti that covers it.
Tank cemetery in France
Out of all the tank graveyards shown here, only the one in Germany makes any effort to dispose of the old vehicles. Given that just one of these functioning war machines could destroy a small village, perhaps it’s not really sad to see them die, slowly corroding in the mud. Ashes to ashes, if you will, and rust to rust.
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