More than a century after the first British tanks trundled forth to battle in World War I in an effort to breach German trenches, high-resolution combat footage posted by the second battalion of Ukraine’s 54th Mechanized Brigade shows that the tactical concept hasn’t gone away.
The recording shows an assault by Ukrainian tanks targeting a trench next to an intersection of a tree line called “T-Pattern” located at Verkhn’okam’yans’ke, in between the cities of Sivers’k and Lyschansk in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine.
The battalion’s drones overwatched the battle using high-resolution cameras able to zoom in for intimate detail. This gave the unit a vantage to spot enemy infantry in cover and pass that on to Ukrainian artillery and tank crews who often suffer limited visibility of the battlefield during the battle.
After the engagement, the leftover recordings were patched together into a startlingly cinematic overview of brutal combat, which the battalion’s K-2 account posted on social media.
Grimly, this is actually one of four lengthy videos posted by K-2 showing combat for control of this exact same trench. The first two videos showed successful actions defending a trench from attacking Russian infantry. This latest one shows a Ukrainian counterattack “in retribution” after that trench was captured by Russian forces.
As the footage could be disturbing, we have not embedded it. You can see it here.
The counterattack is spearheaded by two Ukrainian T-72 main battle tanks—a type reintroduced into Ukrainian service after Russia invaded in 2014—followed by a more lightly armored BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle. This vehicle stays further behind but can be seen blasting the tree line with its rapid-firing 30-millimeter cannon just before the two-minute mark.
Meanwhile, the two T-72s charge through one branch of the tree line in a column, then peel off to begin bombarding different segments with their 125-millimeter cannons. The one at the right particularly bombards entrenched Russian troops near the trench at the T-junction.
At 3:40 minutes this T-72 fires a shot far short of the target. Seconds later a projectile rockets past the tank and explodes dozens of meters behind it, leaving a smoking crater. The Ukrainian editors claim this was an AT-4 Fagot (“Basoon”) anti-tank guided missile, which must be directed to a target by the operator via a wire connecting the launcher to the missile. Allegedly, the tank crew spotted the incoming missile and fired the shell shot to obscure itself and throw off the missile operator’s aim.
Undeterred by the close call, the tank eventually resumes its approach of the T-juncture and is missed by another anti-tank munition at 6:58. It eventually merges back with the tree line so that it is positioned at an angle to shoot down the length of the trench.
Still the crew appears to struggle to visually acquire the well dug-in position, even though from a higher vantage the drone’s camera reveals Russian infantry moving inside. Nonetheless, the tank blasts shell after shell in the vicinity, the over-pressure and shrapnel rending tree limbs.
Ten minutes in, one of the infantrymen chucks a grenade at the tank but it misses. Perhaps with guidance from the drone operators, the tank’s gun then finally gets its bearing on the trench and appears to land a shot inside it. However, we do not know for sure what ensued, only that the tank featured in the video survived as we have the GoPro footage shot from its perspective.
The second part of this video picks up just before the end of the first. Following a second direct hit in the trench there are no more signs of life. Then 1 minute in, another anti-tank guided missile whizzes over the tank, only narrowly missing.
Having reportedly used up his ammunition, the tank commander then proceeds to drive his vehicle back and forth over the trench, grinding it and burying the Russian infantry. Only once that’s done do we see the BMP-2 roll over and deposit an infantry squad from the brigade’s third battalion who occupy the now utterly demolished position without resistance.
The T-Pattern is once again under Ukrainian control. According to K-2, a prisoner revealed the position was held by 28 Russian soldiers, more than expected.
It’s notable how effectively the trench appears to have shielded the Russian infantry packed inside it against repeated near-misses from the tank’s powerful 125-millimeter gun, which likely struggled to depress low enough to hit the target. It’s also notable the Russians were unable to generate more than three anti-tank shots in their defense—and missed with all of them.
U.S. doctrine would have recommended a combined arms attack with infantry accompanying the tank to screen it against ambushes, as closing within point blank range is extremely risky. But such armchair quarterbacking shouldn’t obscure that textbook tactics often don’t get implemented in the field for many reasons.
The Tree Line of Death
The two videos above actually come after two earlier ones showing defense of the same very trench when T-Pattern was initially under control of Ukrainian troops.
The first video posted by K2 featuring this trench shows a Russian platoon creeping forward prone on the open ground in front of the T-intersection, while engaged in a firefight with just eight Ukrainian soldiers occupying a curved trench (described by K2 as “Six meters wide. 30 meters long”) on the perpendicular line of trees, less than a hundred meters away.
The Ukrainian infantry apparently authorized a “danger close” strike—ie. one with a significant risk of hitting their position too. The Russian infantry continue to creep forward, when at 3:45 a shell lands directly in their midst just as a rocket launcher team is about to open fire. That brings the Russian advance to an end, though several more casualties are suffered in the ensuing action.
The next video shows another Russian attack on the T-Pattern. At 1:10, a Ukrainian soldier emerges from a dugout in the trench and opens fire with an assault rifle, possibly hitting one of the Russians and forcing them to take cover. The squad retaliates by throwing in a grenade. Shortly after, artillery fire again falls very close to the trench on the Russian attack force.
At 2:40, another counterattack by a duo of Ukrainian tanks is depicted, this time firing brief bursts from their turret machine guns as well as main gun fire. While machine gun fire rakes the tree line—from which some answering muzzle flashes appear visible—Russian infantry can be seen circulating unmolested on the open ground on the other side of the tree line, shielded from view—but not from the drone operators.
Perhaps at their suggestion, one of the Ukrainian tanks charges across the tree line and catches the now-exposed troops by surprise. Most of the Russian infantry fall or flee after just a single shot from the main gun and a few bursts of machine gun fire.
Such charges by tanks would ordinarily be considered reckless, as they become highly vulnerable to infantry anti-tank weapons at short range. However, the support from overhead drones perhaps grants the crews better situational awareness to assess the risks and possible rewards as well as to locate well-concealed infantry positions.
Depressingly, this trilogy of videos shows the death or wounding of dozens of people fighting over the same 30-meter-long trench. They might have gone on to live fulfilling lives and brought to the world offspring, works of art, or new technologies. Instead, they fall as sacrifices to Putin’s largely fruitless war of conquest, and Ukraine’s heroic resistance against it.
Author Expertise and Biography
Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including 19FortyFive, Popular Mechanics, The National Interest, MSNBC, CNN, Forbes.com, Inside Unmanned Systems, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.