Saturday, 27 June 2020

Armour of Hitler's Satellite

In March of 1939 Slovakia was formed as a semi-independent nation. Its armed forces were formed from the shattered remains of the former Czechoslovakian army. They included an armoured force, although its size and potential were limited.

Before the annexation Slovakia was home to the 3rd Motorized ("Fast" in Czechoslovakian classification) division, subordinate to the 6th Army Corps. It was one of the four motorized divisions formed in late 1937, but it was the weakest of the four. Czechoslovakian leadership expected Slovakia to only be threatened by Hungary, whose army was very weak. The authorized strength of the division was a cavalry and a motorized brigade as well as a motorized reconnaissance battalion with one tank company of 16 vehicles.

The cavalry brigade included two regiments of dragoons, a bicycle battalion, a battalion of horse drawn artillery, and a communications squadron. The mechanized brigade included two battalions of 49 light tanks each, two motorized infantry battalions, an artillery battalion with mechanized tractors, and a communications company.  

This was the ideal state, but in reality only the 3rd Cavalry Brigade was fully formed and the 3rd Motorized Brigade only had the 5th Tank Battalion and 87th Artillery Battalion present. Additionally, all motorized divisions were disbanded in September of 1938.

Czechoslovakian heritage

The Slovakian parliament declared independence on March 14th, 1939. At the time, there was only only tank unit on its territory: the 3rd Tank Regiment (Pulk Útočne Vozby, PÚV-3, "combat vehicle regiment"). The regiment was located in Trenčínský Martin where all the necessary infrastructure was built in 1935-1937.

The 3rd Tank Regiment consisted of four battalions: the 1st included companies of armoured cars and tankettes, the 2nd two companies of light tanks, the 3rd was a reserve unit, and the 4th had all the anti-tank units. 70 officers served in the regiment, 9 of which were Slovaks, 37 NCOs (3 Slovaks), and 821 privates (534 Czechs, 222 Slovaks, 65 Ukrainians).

Slovakian LT vz. 34 tank.

The 3rd Tank Regiment had three OA vz. 27 armoured cars and 18 OA vz. 30, 30 vz. 32 tankettes, 27 LT vz. 34 and 52 LT vz. 35 tanks. Of the latter, 9 were sent to Pilsen for repairs and just before Slovakia declared independence 9 tanks of the same type from the 2nd Tank Regiment arrived to replace them. 8 OA vz. 30 armoured cars also arrived from the 2nd Tank Regiment. They made up for the same number of armoured cars transferred to the police.

The regiment had 219 trucks (Tatra 27, Praga RV, Walter PN, Skoda 6ST-6), 9 fuel trucks, 96 passenger cars (Tatra 57, Skoda, Popuar, Praga AV, Java 600) and 73 motorcycles (mostly CZ 175). In addition, the regiment's arsenals held 1433 carbines, 1769 pistols, 24 vz. 26 light machine guns, 18 vz.35 heavy machine guns, 18 37 mm vz. 34 anti-tank guns, and 9 20 mm vz. 36 AA guns.

Slovakian motorcycle troops.

Organization

After Slovakia declared its independence all Czechs were discharged, which left only 250 men in the 3rd Tank Regiment. Since there was no possibility of rapidly replenishing the personnel, the organizational structure had to be changed to match. Captain Stefan Csányi, the most senior officer left in the regiment, proposed a temporary TO&E for a battalion numbering 419 men on April 28th, 1939. The new regiment included the HQ and 4 companies: two tank companies, an anti-tank company, and an armoured car company.

The captain's proposal was corrected by his superiors, leaving just one tank company but adding a reconnaissance company and a supply company. Instructions were given to fill up the regiment with personnel by means of selecting 45 men from each regiment and 15 from each independent battalion. At least half of these would have to be drivers or mechanics. As it usually happens in this case, the orders were creatively interpreted to get rid of troublemakers. Only about 30% of the arrivals were suitable for service in an armoured unit, some of the remainder were even illiterate.

Nevertheless, by September of 1939 the tank battalion included 552  men (12 officers, 19 NCOs, 531 privates). The battalion was reorganized in the fall of 1939: now it had an HQ, a staff company, a reconnaissance group (platoon of tanks, platoon of armoured cars, platoon of motorcycles), three light tank companies, an anti-tank company, and a reserve company. Due to Major Csányi's efforts the battalion transformed into a regiment in January 1940. In addition to the command and HQ companies it had two battalions. The 1st battalion included the 1st reconnaissance company (with armoured cars), 2nd and 3rd companies of light tanks, and the 4th reserve (tank) company. The 2nd battalion consisted of four anti-tank companies. The reconnaissance company was split between the 1st and 2nd reconnaissance squadrons for several months, but in May of 1940 it returned to the tank regiment.

The organization of tank companies and platoons remained the same as it was in the Czechoslovakian army for some time: five platoons of three tanks each. Including the commander's tank, each company had 16 tanks. The number of tanks per platoon was increased to 5 in mid-1940, but the number of platoons in a company was reduced to 3. 16 tanks remained in the company, as before. Finally, in 1941 the company gained an HQ platoon with 3 tanks, making 18 tanks in total.

Materiel

The only viable armoured vehicle available at the time was the LT vz. 35 light tank. The tankettes, LT vz. 34, and OA vz. 27 were obsolete. The OA vz. 30 armoured cars were worn out. Even new tanks quickly fell into disrepair due to a lack of skilled technical personnel and regular service. Four mechanics had to be invited from the Skoda company to return the tanks to working order. 

OA vz. 27 armoured car.

At the same time, the Slovakian government attempted to obtain modern tanks to replace the LT vz. 34 and vz. 33 tankettes. In September of 1939 it ordered 10 LT vz. 35 tanks from Skoda, but the order could only be fulfilled with permission from the Germans. The Germans dragged their feet and when permission was finally given it turned out that this purchase would make no sense. The LT vz. 35 was no longer in production and restarting production for such a small batch would result in a very high cost.

The Slovaks had to turn to another producer, the former CKD (renamed to BMM by the Germans). It was building Pz.Kpfw.38(t) tanks at the time, designed for the Czechoslovakian army and accepted into service under the name LT vz. 38, but not in time to see service. 10 tanks were ordered in April of 1940 under the name LT-38 (Slovakia adopted a shortened name without "vz."). These tanks were delivered in October-December of the same year.

Acceptance of the first order of LT-38 tanks. Major Csányi is the second on the right.

Slovakia ordered 51 A7 37 mm tank guns from Skoda in August of 1940. These guns were used on LT vz. 38 tanks. The idea was to use them to rearm LT vz. 35 tanks with the newer gun, but they retained the existing ones. The new guns were used to rearm other tanks. In addition to the first 10 LT-38 SLovakia ordered a batch of 20 tanks in August as well as 21 LT-40 tanks. The latter were LTL tanks ordered by Lithuania but the order fell through after it was annexed by the USSR. The A7 guns were supposed to replace Oerlikon guns in these tanks. The tanks were delivered to Slovakia on November 4th. The LT-38 tanks only arrived in June of 1942.

It took some time to put the new tanks into service. The LT-38 tanks only received guns in January of 1941. The tank regiment accepted the LT-40 a month later, in December of 1940, but they had only a pair of vz. 37 machine guns apiece. The reason for this was delays of A7 production. The first 11 guns of this type (transferred from Wehrmacht stock) arrived in Slovakia only on December 2nd, 1940. Ten were used to arm LT-38 tanks. On March 14th, 1941, these tanks took part in an Independence Day parade in Bratislava. Five of the tanks still had the old Czechoslovakian three colour camo, the rest were repainted in khaki.

The second batch of 5 tanks were repainted in a single colour.

The 11th A7 gun was installed on an LT-40 tank. The Slovak army received 20 more A7 guns on April 1st, 1941, but it was necessary to replace the front and upper armour plates on the LT-40 tanks to install them. BMM only supplied these parts in June of 1941, after Slovakia entered the war against the USSR.

Service

Slovakia had to resist land grabs from its neighbour Hungary since the first days of its existence as a nation. Hungary occupied Carpathian Ukraine on March 21st, 1939, and then turned to Slovakia, expecting to lop off at least a chunk of its territory. Hungarian forces invaded Slovakia on March 23rd near Užhorod, occupying 40 settlements by noon. They were opposed by disorganized Slovakian units. The city of Michalovce became the center of resistance. Five OA vz. 30 armoured cars were being repaired in Prešov which were sabotaged by Czech crews. Lieutenant Potochniy, the only armoured forces officer in Eastern Slovakia at the time, organized the repairs. He also organized the crews from Slovak volunteers who had experience with cars (mostly from the communications battalion).

The armoured cars arrived in Michalovce at dawn on March 24th and took part in a counterattack towards Zavadka. The Slovaks capitalized on their success and struck at the Hungarian positions near Nizhnaya Rybnitsa. The Hungarians knocked out one armoured car, after which the Slovak attack stalled and they retreated in panic. The surviving armoured cars managed to hold the Hungarians back at Michalovce.

A knocked out OA vz. 30 armoured car.

The front line stabilized, but the Slovaks kept bringing up reinforcements. Four more armoured cars and three LT vz. 35 tanks arrived in Michalovce. Germany stepped in before combat could escalate any further. The "Three Day War" was over on orders from Berlin. The result was the loss of a small amount of territory by Slovakia.

Slovakia took part in the invasion of Poland in September of 1939. The invasion force included the Kalincak mobile group (cavalry squadron, bicycle company, armoured car company). OA vz. 30 armoured cars were used for their intended purpose, chiefly reconnaissance. There were no recorded losses of vehicles in the September campaign.

LT-35 tank platoon with a Tatra 57 car.

The tank regiment trained at their proving grounds in Bukovina and the shooting range at Oremov Laz. An inspection of the regiment was conducted on June 1st, 1941. At that time it had three tank companies: one with LT vz. 34, one with LT-40, and one mixed (LT vz. 35 and LT vz. 38). On June 8th the regiment was used to form the Mobile (Rapid) Group which would then take part in the invasion of the USSR.


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