Monday 27 February 2023

Modernization in the British Style

Great Britain, the nation that was first to invent the tank, lost its first place in tank building by the end of WWII. Nevertheless, the British designed the 17-pounder, a first class tank gun, and put it to good use on a number of vehicles, both domestic and imported ones. The most famous such vehicle was the Sherman Firefly.

Chassis for a big gun

The main British tank gun at the start of WWII was the 40 mm 2-pounder. This gun was enough against German light and medium tanks at first, but enemy tanks encountered in North Africa already had thicker armour. At first, extra protection came from applique armour that would fall off after 1-2 hits, but soon tanks with 50 mm of monolithic armour appeared that could only be penetrated at point-blank range.

17-pounder gun, The 17-pounder anti-tank gun was a powerful weapon, but vulnerable on the battlefield due to its size and weight. The muzzle brake on this gun is not original.

The need for more powerful tank guns was discussed as early as the summer of 1941. Arrivals of Lee and Grant tanks with the 75 mm M2 gun helped, but not for long. The American gun was deemed to be an acceptable interim measure until the arrival of sufficient quantities of towed 57 mm 6-pounder and 76 mm 17-pounder guns. The 6-pounder was small enough to fit into a tank turret, but the 17-pounder was far too large.

Friday 24 February 2023

Anglo-Canadian Cruiser

When the Canadians decided to produce their own armoured vehicles in 1940, they had a whole world of tanks to choose from. British, American, and even French vehicles were considered. A suitable infantry tank was quickly found, but not a single foreign cruiser tank was entirely satisfactory. As a result, the Canadians created a hybrid tank that combined American, British, French, and original solutions. This tank became known as the Ram.

War against bureaucracy

Selection of an infantry tank was simple for Canada. The Infantry Tank Mk.II was already unsatisfactory by 1940, and the Infantry Tank Mk.IV was too unrefined, plus the design was too complex and heavy for Canada’s fledgling tank industry. The choice was made in favour of the Infantry Tank Mk.III, which was successfully put into production in Montreal at the Canadian Pacific Rail company’s Angus Shops. The cruiser tank would have to be produced in greater amounts. Unlike the Infantry Tank Mk.III, which was produced for export, this tank was meant for Canada’s own army. It was decided on August 13th, 1940, that Canada would raise its own armoured force and it required 1100 cruiser tanks for this purpose.

On one hand, Great Britain was already working on the promising Cruiser Tank Mk.VI. On the other hand, the Americans had just designed the Medium Tank M3 to replace their unsatisfactory M2. The British initially insisted that all of their dominions must build British tanks, but after inspecting Canadian facilities Brigadier Pratt came to the conclusion that the chances of successfully producing the Cruiser Tank Mk.VI here were low.

The final decision was made in favour of cooperation with the neighbour to the south, even though their tank was not entirely satisfactory either. The Hyde Park Declaration signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King on April 20th, 1941, declared that “...each country should provide the other with the defense articles which it is best able to produce, and, above all, produce quickly, and that production programmes should be co-ordinated to this end.” This declaration bypassed the main obstacle for American-Canadian cooperation: a shortage of American currency in Canada. According to the declaration, Canadian industry helped the Americans, and the Lend Lease program was expanded to cover Canadian goods made for Great Britain.

Canadian women assembling a Ram tank.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Tank Review

"To the Chief of Staff of the 31st Vistula Order of the Red Banner Order of Suvorov Order of Kutuzov Tank Corps

I present to you the report on application of tank armament in the Patriotic War. The materials were collected in conversation with the 242nd Order of the Red Banner Order of Suvorov Tank Brigade.

Attachment: the aforementioned on three pages.

Chief of Staff of the 242nd Tank Brigade, Captain Hohlenkov
June 22nd, 1945"

"Report on the use of tank weapons in the Patriotic War

1. Notes on the design drawbacks of guns, machine guns, and ammunition

Monday 20 February 2023

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

The British first encountered the Tiger tank on the battlefield towards the end of 1942 in Tunisia. Employment of Tigers in early 1943 resulted in a number of losses. The Germans were fairly diligent about demolishing tanks that could not be recovered, but an intact sample was found for study before too long. This vehicle and many others were studied thoroughly by British experts in order to build a complete picture of the first German heavy tank.

Man on the inside

As with the Panther, the captured Tiger tank was used for crew comfort trials. Preliminary information about crew comfort obtained during brief inspection in Tunisia was confirmed.

The commander’s workspace was tested first. The massive gun breech made his station quite cramped. From the right the recoil guard constrained his movements in every position, from the left his space was limited by either the turret traverse mechanism (in the lower and standing positions) or the turret wall (in the upper position). His seat lacked a back, and shocks during travel threw him against the hard gas mask rack. The commander had an auxiliary turret traverse flywheel, but it was poorly positioned and he had to twist his wrist to use it. His wrist also chafed against the turret travel lock as the flywheel turned. British specialists described the commander’s position as “cramped and uncomfortable”.

Tiger 131 at the start of crew comfort trials. Narrow transport tracks are installed. The British captured a full set of both transport and combat tracks.

Friday 17 February 2023

T-34 on Tour

A tank’s history does not end with the nation that created it. If possible, it is desirable to familiarize oneself with opinions from other nations, both allies and enemies. Much has been written about the history of T-34 and KV-1 tanks in the Red Army, but even though this a popular topic of discussion, relatively little is known about the evaluation of these tanks in Great Britain. Let us cut through the fog of war with Soviet and British primary sources that describe how the British learned about the legendary Soviet tank.

The next generation of tanks

Finland was the most trustworthy source of information on Soviet tanks available to the British before the start of the Great Patriotic War. Great Britain sent the Finns weapons and received information about their use in return. This information also included descriptions of enemy armament, not that the British were in much need of it. These reports noted that Soviet armoured vehicles were based on British ones: Carden-Loyd tankettes, amphibious Vickers light tanks, and the famous “6-tonner” Vickers Mk.E. The British also knew about the BT tanks. In their opinion, these were identical to the same M1931 Christie tank that inspired a new generation of British Cruiser tanks. Proponents of the theory that the T-35 was a copy of the A1E1 Independent would be disappointed by these reports, as the British saw the T-28 and T-35 as descendants of the Vickers 16-tonner, but larger and with more powerful armament.

The T-34 and KV-1 were shrouded in secrecy, and so the British knew nothing about these tanks until September of 1941. Surprisingly, the source of information about the tanks was German propaganda. Of all foreign nations, Germany perhaps had the best idea of what new Soviet armour looked like before the war. For instance, by June 1941 the Germans knew about a tank called T-35C. According to the attached drawing, it appears that the Germans received accurate information about the SMK tank from Finland, but decided that it was a variant of the known T-35 tank rather than a brand new design.

“T-35C heavy tank” depicted in German intelligence summaries

The appearance of the T-34 tank did not shock the British at all. They correctly identified it as a further development of Christie designs, comparing it to their own Cruiser Tank Mk.VI. Like the T-34, this tank had one more road wheel per side than its ancestor. Even with next to no information, it was decided that both the T-34 and KV-1 are superior to the Pz.Kpfw.IV, considered to be the best German tank at the time.

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Anti-Tank Dogs at Stalingrad

 "10th NKVD Internal Troops Rifle Division
October 1st, 1942

To the commander of the 62nd Army, Lieutenant General comrade Chuikov

The 28th Independent Dog Tank Destroyer Group was composed of 202 men and 202 dogs. It was operationally subordinate to the 10th Rifle Division as of August 24th, 1942 and took a direct part in combat actions in defenses of Stalingrad alongside the division's forces.

Monday 13 February 2023

A German Cat in King George's Court

Study of the enemy’s new weapons or vehicles is always one of the army’s highest priority objectives. The appearance of the Panther tank on the battlefields of WWII could not have gone unnoticed without the Allies’ knowledge, and the British were no exception. Information on this new tank was gathered in several stages.

Foreign sources

Rumours about a new German tank began to arrive in the UK in the summer of 1943. The British military attache in the USSR sent a translation of an article published in the Red Star newspaper on July 24th, 1943, describing the use of a new German tank called “Panterra”. There was little information on this tank, plus the author continuously mixed up the Panther and Ferdinand. More accurate information only arrived on September 7th. With hindsight, we can see that the 45 ton “German Heavy Tank, Mark V” armed with a 75 mm gun and equipped with eight interleaved road wheels per side is indeed the Panther.

These same characteristics were later published in the American Tactical & Technical Trends magazine, with one important distinction: the tank was now called a medium tank, a halfway point between the 22 ton Panzer IV and 57 ton Tiger. Despite the weight difference, the Americans considered this 45 ton tank to be an analogue of their own Sherman, which according to American sources was highly regarded by the Germans.

One of the first images of the Panther tank widely distributed among the Allies

Friday 10 February 2023

Voroshilov Abroad

Soviet tank building was a mystery for foreigners, but the start of the Great Patriotic War lifted the dense veil of secrecy. Depictions of new Soviet tanks first appeared in German intelligence summaries and later in news and propaganda. If the T-34 was a predictable development of Christie’s designs that were already known to American and British engineers, then the heavy KV tank was without an equal or obvious ancestor. As neither the British nor Americans experienced much success with building heavy tanks, these tanks were valuable sources of inspiration. Before too long, they began to receive information directly from their new ally to the east, and even got their hands on the tanks themselves.

Monday 6 February 2023

Video: Matilda's Real Name

There are a lot of misconceptions commonly shared about popular WW2 tanks. Some are as fundamental as the vehicle's name. In today's video I look at something very simple: what is the name of the tank in the picture? 

Friday 3 February 2023

T-34 as an Ersatz APC

The Red Army began to explore the issue of transporting infantry around the battlefield in special vehicles in the 1930s. A number of vehicles were developed for this purpose, primarily on the chassis of the T-26 tank. Most of the time, the result was not what the army needed. The vehicles ended up too bulky and uncomfortable, and so work did not progress past prototypes. A program to develop an APC on a tracked chassis (T-40 tank) and wheeled chassis (GAZ-62 truck/LB-62 armoured car). This work reached the technical requirements stage before priorities shifted in the summer of 1941.

Handrails were added to the T-34 and KV-1 tanks to help carry infantry riders.

Wednesday 1 February 2023

Porsche's White Elephant

Soviet tank designers began working on a number of countermeasures to the Ferdinand tank destroyer after its debut at the Battle of Kursk. These vehicles were expected to be the next step in the evolution of German heavy AFVs, but the Ferdinand and modernized Elefant only appeared a handful of times on the Eastern Front. The only other theatre of war they were used in was Italy. What did the Western Allies discover about this rare beast?

Long guns and tall tales

Like the Panther, the Ferdinand made its debut at the Battle of Kursk. Information about the new tank destroyer was available as early as July 14th, 1943, and on the next day specialists from the NIBT proving grounds arrived to examine the vehicles. A lot of information was available, as Soviet witnesses and German POWs had a lot to say about the tactics used by these new vehicles. There was also a lot of materiel to inspect. According to German reports 39 out of 91 Ferdinands made were left on the battlefield at Kursk.

The Ferdinand in three-quarters view. This drawing was made from a photograph taken at the Battle of Kursk.