Friday 10 March 2017

CKD Export Tanks: An Offer You Can't Refuse

Czechoslovakian tank manufacturing caught up to world standards in the mid-1930s. The P-II, CKD's first light tank and the first mass produced domestically designed tank, was close to the world's leading designs. The LT vz. 35 that won the tender for a new cavalry tank caught up with the rest of the world's leaders. It's not surprising that Czechoslovakian tanks were considered for purchase in countries without a domestic tank design program. This caused the design of the CKD TNH and LTP (Tanque 39); excellent tanks that became the backbone of the Iranian and Peruvian tank fleets.

Middle East Client

A new name appeared on the world map on March 22nd, 1935: Iran. This was the new name for Persia, another step in Reza Pahlavi's plan to modernize his country. The ruler slowly changed the face of his country, trying to make it into a developed, industrialized nation. Significant reforms were also made in the army, the backer of his rule.

Aleksei Surin's patented suspension, a trademark feature of CKD's tanks.

One of the most pressing issues of the modernization was the need to buy tanks. The few Renault FT tanks that the army had were already obsolete. Iran needed a new generation of tanks. At that time, Great Britain was the leading exporter of tanks. However, that option was unlikely, as Persia/Iran had very tense relations with Great Britain, as well as the USSR, it's northern neighbour. The French and Germans could not offer any exports at the time.

The first modern tank purchased by Iran was the American Marmon-Herrington CTL-1. This was effectively just a way to get rid of an old prototype. The CTL-1 was more of a tankette than a tank, anyway.

Experimental AH-IV (right) and TNH at the factory. September 1935.

As with the USSR in 1939, Iran created a commission to purchase samples of new artillery and, if possible, armoured vehicles. In early 1935, the commission headed by General Ismail Khan ended up in Paris, where they first talked to CKD and Skoda representatives.

At that point, the military wanted 100 three-ton tankettes. Both companies had something to offer. Skoda was looking for a buyer for its MU-4 (S-I), and CKD was already producing the P-I, also known as Tančík vz. 33. The Iranians were also interested in other Czechoslovakian tanks, including the P-II. Emil Oplatka, an agent of CKD, participated actively in the negotiations, and persuaded the Iranian representatives to choose his company in exchange for a percentage of the deal.

The same TNH prototype after conversion. February 1936.

Meanwhile, CKD's tanks had critical drawbacks, especially in the suspension. Aleksey Surin's design bureau began emergency work on improved P-I and P-II vehicles almost immediately after the negotiations in Paris. The reworked tankette, indexed AH-IV, deserves its own article.

As for the reworked P-II, it received the internal index TNH. This tank differed significantly from its predecessor. Experience received from making the P-II-a tank was applied as much as possible, especially in the engine compartment. The biggest change was the use of Aleksey Surin's suspension. The amount of road wheels was reduced to 4 per side, but they grew in diameter and became single. This suspension, created for an export tank, became CKD's trademark. The drive sprocket and idler design also changes. The amount of teeth per track was increased to two.

The same tank from the right. Few companies could offer something comparable for export at the time the Praha TNH arrived on the scene.

The Iranian purchasing commission arrived in Prague in May of 1935. A contract was signed for 30 AH-IV tankettes and 26 light TNH tanks as a result of this visit. This visit was also a benefit to Skoda. Even though Bofors and Vickers cannons were discussed, the Iranians picked 37 mm Skoda guns for their tank.

The contract was signed even before prototypes were completed. This strange move was partially caused by a lack of alternatives and partially because of a gift from CKD. The commission left with a P-I tankette prototype.

The tank is crossing a grade. The export tank could compete with many vehicles of its class in terms of maneuverability.

Pahlavi's commission chose correctly. CKD, interested in a foreign client, worked heroically on prototypes. Both were ready for demonstration in September, although they still had dummy turrets.

The mass and size of the THN ended up between that of the P-II and P-II-a. The engine was also intermediate, a 7 L 85 hp engine from the Praha TN truck. This truck also served as a chassis for the CKD TN SPE-34 armoured car, built for the Romanians. The engine was weaker than on the P-II-a, but offered a power to weight ratio of 10 hp/ton. The armour of the TNH was identical to that of the P-II, which was enough for an infantry support tank.

Drawings of the reworked tank after trials.

The tank impressed the Iranians when shown to them. The first trials proved that the TNH was superior to the P-II. Its top speed was 32 kph at stock RPM and 37 at increased RPM. These results became possible not only because of a more powerful engine, but also the new suspension. The tank was improved further. A real turret with a commander's cupola to the right of its axis was eventually installed. Skoda did not finish its prototype on time, so the tank was trialed with a model of the 37 mm A 4 Beta gun.

While the engineers worked on the tank, the Iranian commission remained in Prague and lived it up. CKD didn't care, since the Iranians did what they hoped on September 10th, 1935: expand the order to 50 AH-IV and 50 TNH. A collective sigh of relief echoed through Prague. An order for 100 vehicles made up for the failure of the P-II-a at army trials.

Even the British could only dream about an order of this magnitude. The success of Czechoslovakian tanks was explained by their very attractive price, in addition to their characteristics. Each tank cost 3570 Iranian reals, less than a Vickers Mk.E.

This is what a mass produced Praha TNH looked like. Take note of the turret machinegun mount.

Mass production tanks differed from the prototype. Trials showed that the turret machinegun mount needed work. Early TNH had a new mount, moved out forward. Later, the design was simplified. Observation slits were added to the sides of the driving compartment. The engine compartment and muffler mount were changed.

The turret also changed. The commander's cupola design was simplified, ventilation ports were added on the sides, the coaxial machinegun mount changed, and the number of observation slits increased. If necessary, an AA machinegun mount could be attached to the commander's cupola.

If necessary, an AA machinegun could be installed on the cupola.

Due to the delay on Skoda's part, a real gun appeared on the TNH only in August of 1936. Trials showed that the gun turned out well. This signaled that the tank was ready for production.

The arrangement was the same as with the LT vz. 34. POLDI Hutte from Kladno supplied the armour. CKD cast its own parts in Prague. Assembly also happened here. 23 tanks were completed by the end of 1936, and the order to TNH tanks was fully completed in May of 1937. The Iranian commission in Prague wasn't in a hurry. They clearly liked the city and they themselves were popular with local ladies.

TNH tank from the main production run.

The Iranian army demonstrated their new tanks on February 22nd, 1937, when 11 TNH tanks rolled through the streets of Tehran. The demonstration made an impact, since Iran suddenly became the owner of the most modern tanks in the region.

The level of satisfaction with their purchase can be determined from the fact that negotiations for the purchase of 200 more THN tanks began in the spring of 1938. However, CKD was loaded with other orders, and negotiations ended in the spring of 1939 when Czechia was occupied by the Germans.

The tanks didn't help Iran. When the joint Soviet-British occupation operation began in August of 1941, the Shah's forces offered almost no resistance. Reza Pahlavi's government fell and he fled the country.

Best Tank in Latin America

While in Paris in early 1935, Oplatka reported that he established contact with a Captain Martinez from the Peruan army. He arrived in Europe with the goal of buying medium and light tanks.

Peru was in a difficult position in the mid-1930s. A war between Peru and Colombia in 1932-33 went badly for the former. At that point, two countries in South America owned tanks: Bolivia, and Brazil. Both bordered Peru. Finally, a war between Bolivia and Paraguay over Chaco concluded recently. Peru thought it was best to keep safe with such noisy neighbours.

The LTP was supposed to look like this, but the A 4 Beta was replaced with the A 3.

The Peruvians were leaning towards buying Italian L3/33 tanks when CKD began its negotiations with Martinez. The Peruvians were attracted by its low price, which was the equivalent of only 200,000 Czechoslovakian kroner.

The commission was initially interested in Czechoslovakian AH-IV tankettes. The Peruvians expressed a desire to buy 10-20 tanks after the first round of negotiations on January 27th, 1936, but they did not decide between the AH-IV and the TNH.

Their opinions changed when the commission arrived in Prague in October of 1936. Seeing the TNH in person made them realize that the tankettes are not what they needed. According to specifications of the Peruvian army, they needed a 5-6 ton tank armed with a 37 mm cannon and a machinegun, with a top speed of at least 20 kph and a range of 160 km. Oplatka earned his salary: almost all information sent by the Peruvians to Lima made its way to CKD.

Experimental LTP at factory trials.

Thanks to Oplatka and CKD's other agents, the Peruvians did not purchase Italian tanks. Meanwhile, another customer turned up: Lithuania. The Lithuanians also wanted a 5-6 ton tank, since local bridges could not carry any more weight than that. The negotiations started out quickly but soon slowed down to a more traditional lethargic pace. The Lithuanians were also leaning towards the Swedish Landsverk L-120 and took their time with working out their requirements. The much more agreeable Swiss turned up on the horizon, for which the Czechoslovakians designed the light LTL-H tank.

As for Lithuania's tank, the LTL, work stalled and all existing designs were applied to the Peruvian project. However, an additional issue popped up on the Peruvian front. The French, specifically Schneider, also had ambitions in that market. Skoda was Schneider's partner, and a series of negotiations had to be made before the French backed off.

The A 4 Beta gun had to be replaced with the older A 3, although it had similar characteristics. The LTL had a different layout than the TNH: the transmission and drive sprockets were in the rear. The tank had to be seriously altered.

The tank was painted in a three-colour camouflage.

After long negotiations in Paris, a contract was signed on February 15th, 1938, for 24 Czechoslovakian tanks for the Peruvian army. They were called LTL initially, but the name was changed to LTP in April, when assembly of two prototypes began.

According to the revised specifications, the tank had to have a mass of 6.3 tons, reach a speed of 40 kph, and work at altitudes of up to 4.5 km. The last requirement was quite important for Peru, as it has no shortage of mountains. One tank was shipped there to test its performance at high altitudes. The final stage of building a prototype at CKD began in June of 1938, but work dragged on and was only delivered on July 11th.

The LTP turned out mobile and well armed, especially for its class.

As with the Iranians, the Peruvians were happy with their choice. The new tank was a very interesting design. Its mass was 7325 kg, a ton over the requirement. This was not its only drawback.

The tank had less mass than the LT vz. 34, but had the same cannon and machinegun. The thickness of the armour was the same as on the LT vz. 35. The hull was shorter at only 4100 mm, half a meter less than the LT vz. 34. The combat capabilities of the tank were equal to that of the heavier THN, and superior in some respects.

The tank used a Swedish 15 hp 7.75 L 6 cylinder Scania-Vabis 1664 engine. The same engine was used on the L-60-S, also known as Strv m/38. The appearance of such a compact and powerful engine became possible thanks to CKD's cooperation with Sweden, who purchased AH-IV-Sv tankettes under the index Strv m/37. Thanks to this Swedish motor, the LTP had an impressive power to weight ratio of 17.1 hp/ton.

Another difference between the LTP and LTL was a new driver's observation device, which provided better visibility. The front machinegun mount was also altered, and the machinegun itself was replaced with the ZB vz. 30. The shape of the turret also changed, now closer to the LT vz. 34. The commander's cupola was taken from the TNH, and the ventilation port was moved to the rear.

The same tank from the rear.

After initial trials, the tank received three colour camouflage and a personal name: "Lima". On August 4th, it was loaded onto the "Piłsudski" steamship in Gdansk, and taken to New York, where it was transferred to the steamship "Frida". On September 13th it arrived in the Callao port in Peru.

After the first inspection and trials in the Lima arsenal, the tank was delivered to the high altitude city of La Oroya. The tank confidently strolled along the mountain roads of the Andes. Even at 4200 meters, it could confidently reach a speed of 33 kph. In regular conditions, its top speed was 40 kph. The tank was inspected by General Óscar R. Benavides, the president of the country at the time, who was satisfied with it. Trials in the desert were also completed successfully. Peru received an excellent tank.

Mass production of the LTP began on September 23rd, 1938, right after the Lima tank was tested in the Andes. Meanwhile, the political situation almost ruined the deal. The threat of war between Germany and Czechoslovakia forced the latter to look for tanks wherever they could be found. The army agreed to buy out the LTPs at 5752 pounds Sterling per tank. However, thanks to the infamous Munich Agreement, the need for tanks disappeared.

Six LTP tanks were loaded onto the "Patria" steamship in Hamburg on November 4th, 1938, which arrived in Callao on December 7th. CKD representatives met them there and organized training courses for Peruvian crews. The remaining 16 tanks were completed in November of 1938. After factory trials, they were also shipped to South America. The last batch arrived on February 27th, 1939.

The first experimental LTP received the name "Lima". Later, all Tanque 39 received names.

The arrival of 24 LTP tanks, indexed Tanque 39 in Peru, shifted the balance of power in the region. Peru suddenly became the owner of the largest tank force on the continent: a whole battalion, made up of two companies. Later, Praha T6 tractors and trucks arrived in Peru from Czechoslovakia.

After the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, most CKD representatives chose to stay in Peru and not return to their home country. This played right into Peru's hands, since their tank battalion was now equipped with experienced specialists.

The Tanque 39 and its crews did not sit idle for long. A war between Peru and Ecuador broke out on July 5th, 1941. On July 23rd, the Czechoslovakian tanks first saw battle in Latin America. The tank battalion, which contained a large number of Czechs, attacked Ecuadorian forces in the direction of Puerto Bolivar. Ecuador couldn't put up a worthy opponent, and the success was stunning. Tanks played a key role in that war. As a result of the peace treaty signed on January 29th, 1942, Peru obtained almost half of the territory of Ecuador, 278,000 square kilometers.

Tanque 39 and their crews. Peru had the largest tank force on the continent.

After Peru declared that it wanted nothing to do with Axis countries, the USA delivered 30 Light Tanks M3A1 to Peru. Theoretically, the American tank surpassed the Czechoslovakian one in every respect. In reality, the Peruvians liked their old tanks more, and did not like American tanks much at all. After the end of the war, General Martinez, the same one that signed the contract with CKD as a captain, served as an intermediary in negotiations once more. The Peruvian army wished to buy 24-36 more modernized LTP tanks. It was assumed that these tanks would have 37 mm A7 guns, welded hulls, and Tatra diesel engines.

The deal was never made. The negotiations were interrupted in 1951 by the Czechoslovakian government. Peru did manage to buy parts for the tanks they bought earlier, which allowed them to extend their lifespan. The tanks remained in service until at least 1988, and were used for anti-partisan operations.

At least 11 tanks survive to this day. One of them still works and participates in parades. Veterans from 1941 usually sit in the turret. Recently, a Tanque 39 was handed over to the Czech Republic and restored. It can be seen at the Military Museum in Lešany.

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