Saturday, 9 July 2016

Steel Inheritance

The Czechoslovakian industry received a number of advanced military technologies after the end of the Second World War as the result of German orders, but their inheritance didn't end here. A large amount of formerly German tanks were left in the country. Even though Czechoslovakia preferred Soviet tanks and SPGs, nobody was going to say refuse the wealth of German vehicles. As a result, the country ended up with a colourful tank park, including domestic pre-war LT vz.35 and LT vz.38, British Cromwells and Challengers, Soviet T-34-85s and IS-2s, and many German vehicles, including the StuG 40.


Scattered in the Fields

Since 1943, German production slowly moved its emphasis from tanks to tank destroyers. The PzIII left the stage in favour of the StuG 40. 792 vehicles of this type were built in all of 1942, but 435 were built in only March of 1943, and in August, 587. The StuG 40 was more numerous than any German tank in WWII.

Naturally, hundreds of them were left in Czechoslovakia after the end of the war, but many were good only for parts. The majority of the vehicles were from the most numerous Ausf. G modification. 8500 of those were build in total. These were mostly tanks with a cast gun mantlet nicknamed "pig snout" or "pot-mantlet". There are also photos of vehicles build before the summer of 1944 with the older welded design.

Czech StuGs included some venerable vehicles, like this Ausf. B knocked out in Prague.

Initially, the Czechoslovak military ignored its inheritance. The situation changed in late 1945, when German equipment was gathered at special repair bases, also inherited from the Germans. These bases were located in Přelouč, Děčín, and Vrchotovy Janovice. Work dragged on, and the first repaired vehicle only left Přelouč in September of 1946.

Repaired StuGs entered service under the index ShPTK 40/75N (assault gun 40 with 75 mm gun, German). New serial numbers were issued for restored StuGs, from 67 947 to 67 949. Major repairs for another 20 vehicles were planned for 1947, but in reality only two or three more ShPTK 40/75N were repaired (serial numbers 71 860 and 71 861 are known). Even though about 50 StuGs were readied for conversion, work on them was paused for the time being.

One of the converted assault guns playing a StuG 40.

It is easy to understand why. Czechoslovakia was an industrialized country, but still not in a hurry to waste resources in war-torn Europe. The already finished vehicles were sent to the tank school at Vyškov, 55 km from Brno. One of the vehicles was put to trials by a commission from the Ministry of Defense. As a result, it was decided to leave the mechanical gearbox clutch, rejecting the idea for a hydraulic one, replace the fighting compartment ventilator with a more powerful one, and use cast mantlets whenever possible. After trials of a converted vehicle, the ShPTK 40/75N got the green light.

To Action

First, the ShPTK 40/75N assault guns at the tank school were converted to the new format, then the remainder of the vehicles at Přelouč. In February of 1948, five StuG 40s were converted, and 50 ShPTK 40/75Ns were produced that year. Five of them were sent to the tank school, 20 to the 12th Tank Brigade, 20 to the 11th Tank Brigade, and 5 to the 14th Tank Brigade. Repaired vehicles received serial numbers from 67 511 to 67 563. The size of the range is explained by the fact that ShPTK 40/75N 67 514, 67 538, and 67 540 were completed in 1949. Two of them were sent to the tank school, one to the 352nd SPG Regiment located in Pilsen.

Another ShPTK 40/75N with German crosses. Serial number 67 533 is visible. Today, the vehicle can be seen in the Banská Bystrica museum in Slovakia.

In 1949, the ShPTK 40/75N was changed to SD 75/40N (Samohybné dělo, self propelled gun). The army received 50 SD 75/40Ns including the ones listed above. 5 of them were sent to the tank school, and the rest to the 352nd SPG Regiment. Repaired vehicles had serial numbers 67 564–67 580, 79 601–79 628, 79 637 and 79 640. The last 19 SD 75/40Ns were converted in 1950, and all were sent to the 352nd Regiment. Their serial numbers ranged from 79 628 to 79 650. In total. 124 StuG 40s were modernized.

Unlike the PzIV, the StuGs did not change significantly in Czechoslovakian service. Even the headlights remained the same, as Notek lights were still produced in Czechoslovakia. Some vehicles had additional toolboxes, but their addition was not widespread. None of the converted vehicles had skirt armour or even mounts for it, but a portion of StuG 40s didn't have it originally anyway.

The 76 mm A 19 Skoda gun which was proposed as a replacement for the 7.5 cm StuK 40.

There was a moment when the StuG 40s could have received a significant upgrade. In 1948, Skoda began development of the 76 mm A 19 gun, which would replace both the Pak 40 and ZiS-3 in Czechoslovakian service. In 1949, two prototypes were built. One had an electric trigger, the other a mechanical one.

The armour piercing round of the A 19 had a muzzle velocity of 915 m/s and could penetrate 100 mm of armour sloped at 30 degrees from a kilometer away, a respectable statistic considering that the gun was very compact, even though the barrel was longer than that of the Pak 40 or StuK 40. The artillery committee of the Czechoslovak army reviewed the idea of developing a special version of the A 19 for the SD 75/40N between December 13th and 14th, 1949.

Rendering of how the SD 75/40N with the 76 mm Skoda A 19 gun could have looked.

The design was rejected, and the A 19 was soon rejected altogether. Instead, engineers focused their efforts on the more powerful 100 mm A 20 gun, which was approved for service under the index 100 mm kanon vz.53.

On June 8th, 1951, another attempt to re-arm the assault gun was made. The VTÚ (Vojenské techniky ústav, Military Technical Institute), proposed installing the 85 mm mod. 1944 gun (ZiS-S-53) from the T-34-85, since Czechslovakia was going to be producing the tank. However, this proposal was also never carried out.

Vz.40 75 mm ShPTK N-IV during filming of the movie "A Song About the Gray Pigeon".

Aside from the StuG 40, another German assault gun was modernized in Czechoslovakia. A StuG IV was discovered during the conversion of PzIV tanks to the Czechoslovakian standard at CKD. On June 24th, 1948, it received the serial number 67 488 and index vz.40 75 mm ShPTK N-IV, and was sent to the tank school. It served for a long time, and even starred in "A Song About the Gray Pigeon", released in 1961. The plan was to leave it for a museum, but it ended its existence at a scrapyard.

Third Hands

By early 1951, most of the SD 75/40N (108 vehicles) were collected into the 351st and 352nd SPG regiments. The rest were sent to the storage base at Martin, where the main Czechoslovakian tank factory was later built. Later, the regiments were reformed into batteries.

The vehicle were used as tractors and as training aides, 1972.

The service life of the SD 75/40N was short. Production of the SD-100 (Czechoslovak version of the SU-100) began in 1953. SD 75/40N were gradually rotated out and sent to Žilina. The replacement process was complete by March of 1955. After that, the SD 75/40N was only used as a training aide and in movies about the war.

The brief lifespan of the SD 75/40N might make one think that modernization of the assault guns was a mistake, but that was not the case. When the TVP tank was delayed, modernization of existing vehicles was the most reasonable idea, especially since work on TVP-based SPGs never made it out of the design stage. Unlike them, the SD 75/40N was a cheap and quick solution which put over 100 vehicles into service.

The tale of the Czechoslovakian StuG 40 can end here, but it continues. On March 21st, 1953, Antonín Zápotocký became president of Czechoslovakia. Under him, Czechoslovakia resumed arms shipments to other countries. The volume of exports was even larger than export of airplanes in the late 1940s. On September 21st, 1955, a deal was struck between Czechoslovakia and Egypt regarding a wide range of armament and vehicles. It is often said that only Soviet weapons were shipped to Egypt and the deal was only a coverup, but that is not the case. Even the tanks that were Soviet came from Czechoslovak warehouses. However, most of the tanks shipped were Czechoslovakian. 
Column of SD 75/40Ns on parade in Damascus.

After Egypt, Syria signed a weapons deal which included 60 SD 75/40Ns. The Czechoslovakian government killed two birds with one stone. on one hand, they received money, on the other hand, they freed themselves of obsolete vehicles that would have to be mothballed and later scrapped. The fist shipment of 20 SD 75/40Ns was scheduled for spring of 1956, the next batch would be sent in August, and another at the end of the year.

The real shipments were smaller, and numbers vary. Some sources say that only 12 vehicles left for Syria. Others say that at least 20 were sent. In January of 1957, during reorganization of Syrian artillery regiments, 28 of these vehicles were removed. Finally, according to research by Czech historian Vladimir Franzev, a total of 32 SD 75/40Ns were sent to Syria.

Syrian crew in front of a German-Czechoslovak vehicle.

Syrian vehicles saw some changes. First, the Syrians installed a massive turret on the left side of the casemate, mounting an Italian Breda SAFAT 12.7 mm machinegun.

Breda SAFAT machinegun turret. Note that there is still Zimmerit on this vehicle, therefore it is was a StuG 40 that was produced before September of 1944.

The only time Syrian SD 75/40Ns saw battle was the Six-Day War. In spring of 1967, conflicts at the borders of Israel, Syria, and Egypt escalated into a full blown war. An Israeli air strike against enemy airports on June 5th, 1967, destroyed almost all enemy aircraft. Having obtained air superiority, Israel began its offensive.

General David Elazar's forces attacked north, towards Syria. On June 9th and 10th, his forces assaulted Golan Heights. Here is where the Syrians used their SD 75/40Ns against Israeli M50, M51, and AMX 13 tanks. The Syrians also had several Jagdpanzer IVs. Their source is not known, but the result is: fragments of Syrian SPGs still litter Golan Heights to this day. Several vehicles were captured intact. Today, one captured SD 75/40N can be seen in the Yad La-Shiryon tank museum in Latrun.

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