Saturday, 27 February 2016

World of Tanks History Section: American Pre-War Tank Building

At the end of the 19th century, the United States of America began a sharp rise in the development of industry, science, education, and culture. The army and navy guaranteed protection from any opponent in the New World, and the oceans around North America acted as the most effective border guard against any transoceanic enemy.

Externally, the US practiced isolationist policies and kept far away from the wars that engulfed Europe. However, when WWI started, the situation changed. After a series of incidents that resulted in losses of American merchant vessels, President Wilson asked Congress to enter the war. On April 4th, 1917, the Senate allowed the United States to join the First World War.

On June 13th, 1917, General John Joseph Pershing and the first American expeditionary force arrived in Europe. This commander previously fought in local conflicts with the Apache and Sioux, in the Hispano-American War of 1898, and Pancho Villa's rebels. The positional war in Europe was somewhat different from what the American military imagined it to be, and Pershing understood the importance of an army that could deliver a powerful strike while remaining mobile. It is not surprising that he initiated the creation of armoured forces in the United States.

On January 26th, 1918, the American Tank Corps formed from two parts: the tank corps of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe and the Tank Force of the National Army, later renamed the Tank Corps of the National Army.

Proposals for armoured vehicles were sent to the American army before. In 1915, a businessman named Lowe proposed a 30 ton tank project based on the Willoc tractor. In 1917, the Holt tractor company proposed a vehicle that looked very similar to the British "Little Willie" tank, created by William Tritton.

Another interesting project was proposed by the Pioneer tractor company in Minnesota. The vehicle was nicknamed "Skeleton", due to its suspension. The tracks of the Skeleton were not attached to the hull, but to a metal frame with pipe connectors. A small rectangular hull, designed for two crew members, was located between these frames.

The military's lack of enthusiasm towards American tanks led to the necessity of purchasing foreign vehicle when General Pershing ordered the creation of a tank force. On September 12th, 1918, the American tankers fought their first battle at Saint-Michelle, a village south of Verdun. Lieutenant-Colonel Patton commanded the 344th and 345th tank battalions in this battle.

American armoured doctrine used small, light, medium, and heavy tanks. The battle-proven French Renault FT-17 was chosen as the light tank. This 6-ton vehicle was one of the most advanced in the world. The layout of the FT-17 was later accepted as classical: the armament was located in a rotating turret, engine in the rear, crew compartment up front. Initially, the Americans planned to order 3500 vehicles of this type. Some of these were to be built by the French, and some by the Americans. The Ford company purchased a license to manufacture these tanks.

American engineers altered the design of the tank. The driver's visibility was improved. Armour was increased. The Renault engine was replaced with an American one. The American version of the FT-17 was indexed M1917. The tank was armed with either a 37 mm gun or a machine gun.

Heavy tank units were to be armed with the jointly developed British-American Mark VIII Liberty tanks. This tank was a typical "rhombus" type, with fairly wide tracks, enclosing the entire hull. The vehicle weighed 39 tons, and was armed with two 57 mm Hotchkiss guns, with 5-7 rifle caliber machine guns for support. The 10-meter long tank was crewed by 8-11 people

The Liberty was the peak of British rhombus tanks. Perhaps, this direction could be developed further, but, as soon as the FT-17 was deemed superior, the time of the rhombus came to an end.

The Mk VIII did not fight in WWI. The Americans built about 100 of these vehicles in 1919-1920. Until 1930, it remained America's only heavy tank.

After WWI ended, large tank units proved too expensive for the USA, and, in 1920, the tank corps was disbanded. Over the next 20 years, the US did not have large tank units, but funding was periodically issued for new vehicles.

For examples, in the 1920s, the army staff considered the M1917 obsolete, and initiated the construction of a new light tank. Specialists from the Rock Island Arsenal, along with engineers from the Cunningham tractor company, presented the T1 project in 1924. This small 7-ton tank had a non-standard layout, with a rear turret, and front engine. The tank was armed with a 37 mm cannon and 7.62 mm machine gun. Numerous modifications of the T1 project were developed over its lifetime, but they all had their flaws, and were rejected.

The last of the Cunninghams, the T1E4 and T1E6, were meant to solve the flaws of their predecessors. Elements of the British Vickers 6-ton were used in their construction. The engineers achieved superior mobility with the same armament, but there were serious problems with the gearbox and the tanks were not mass produced.

The Americans designed new light tanks for seven years after the termination of the Cunningham program. One of these tanks was the T2 Light on a Vickers suspension. It was designed with machine guns and small caliber autocannons for armament. The T2 was not mass produced, but its creation led to valuable experience, leading to a mass produced M2 Light tank with a new suspension and machine gun armament. On December 29th, 1938, the Americans accepted and began production of a new M2A4 light tank. This tank was armed with a cannon. The new vehicle was maneuverable, and had armour comparable with American medium tanks of the time. Mass production of the M2A4, in which the Americans experimented with cast hulls and turrets, never got off the ground. Welding and riveting of armour continued until the spring of 1941.

In parallel with the T1 tanks, the Americans were developing a medium tank, superior to the Liberty in mobility, and to light tanks in protection. The new tank would have been indexed M1921. It weighed 23 tons, and was armed with a 75 mm howitzer in a rotating turret. This howitzer was capable of not only immobilizing, but completely destroying, a light tank with a direct hit. This was demonstrated practically, using poor M1917 tanks as targets. After 7 years of development, the vehicle was not mass produced due to high cost.

In parallel with the T1 Medium, another lighter medium tank was developed, the T2 Medium. It was built by the Cunningham company using the same layout as the light T1. The tank could accelerate up to 25 mph, and was armed with a 37 mm or 47 mm gun, and machine guns. The T2 Medium was the best tank developed by the Bureau of Ordnance. And yet, it was too expensive for an America that was struggling with the Great Depression.

The Great Depression led to a reconsideration of many principles of armoured warfare. Tank units were to be armed with light, mobile, and cheap vehicles. Engineer Christie proposed some projects, but the military's response to his convertible designs was rather unenthusiastic.

By 1934, Christie annoyed the military so much, that they were ready to accept anything, as long as they didn't have to deal with the persistent and rude engineer. In April of 1934, Captail Reiry proposed a tank project using the Christie chassis and 4 machine gun sponsons, along with a 37 mm gun in a rotating turret. The Bureau took the opportunity to reject the Christie suspension, and instead take a recently developed suspension unified with the T2 Light tank. The resulting vehicle was indexed T5.

After many modifications, the tank was built in December of 1937, with a wooden turret. In about a year, the tank received a real turret, and was sent to Aberdeen.

The T5 was protected by 25 mm thick armour, and propelled by a Continental air cooled engine, which allowed it to reach a speed of 31 mph on a highway. The armament included a 37 mm gun an several machine guns. The tank's turret and sides had openings for the crew's pistols.

In the summer of 1939, the tank was accepted under the index M2. The vehicle was produced in Rock Island.

The beginning of WWII in Europe forced the American government to reconsider their priorities for armoured forces. It was no longer a guarantee that they could sit this one out, and development of a better tank began. This resulted in the M3 tank being developed in the summer of 1940, but that is another story.

Original article available here.

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