Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II (2015)
The Approach to War: 1919–36
TO BETTER APPRECIATE THE TANKS AVAILABLE at the start of World War II, it is important to understand tank development after World War I. This chapter examines the quintessential tanks of the prewar period up to the first stirring of global war in 1936. This date has been chosen because 1936 marks the start of the great European arms race that preceded World War II. The tanks that entered service after 1936 will be covered in the next chapter on the blitzkrieg era.
The mid-1930s were something of a “pre-game warmup” for the global war that followed. The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 and was the first conflict since World War I where tanks were used in significant numbers. In Asia, both China and Japan were girding for war, which finally started in earnest in 1937 with the Marco Polo bridge incident.
The predominant tank of the 1920s was the Renault FT, the most modern and widely produced tank of World War I. Aside from its use by France, it was also the seed for many other tank forces, including those of the United States and Soviet Union. In the 1930s, the French army rebuilt many of its older tanks to extend their lives, including the addition of the more modern Reibel 7.5mm machine gun, as seen on the tank to the right. The tank on the left is a standard gun-armed version with the 37mm SA18 gun.
Copies of the Renault FT were built in several countries; in Italy it became the Fiat 3000. This particular tank was still in service in July 1943 during the fighting on Sicily.
Many Renault FTs and their copies remained in service through the start of World War II. This is a 6-Ton tank, the American copy of the Renault FT. This example was in training use at Fort Belvoir in November 1940 when the mishap occurred. Many of these old tanks were shipped to Canada to expedite tank crew training.
The most significant tanks of this period entered production in the early 1930s. There was very little tank production from the end of World War I until 1930 due to the financial and military exhaustion of the great powers and the large inventory of tanks left over from the war. Tank production had resumed in fits and starts in the late 1920s; some of these efforts were delayed programs to manufacture World War I tanks. The Renault FT proved to be one of the most influential tanks of the war and led to some copies or derivatives, such as the American 6-Ton tank, Italian Fiat 3000, and Soviet Russki-Reno and MS-1. France attempted to continue the evolution of the design with the Renault NC, but fewer than 30 were built and most were exported. Aside from experimental tanks, one of the few remaining French types to reach production was the super-heavy Char 2C, a tank designed for the 1919 Allied offensive but completed only in 1920 because of problems with the engine. The British rhomboid Landships and the German A7V had far less appeal, and these configurations largely disappeared after the war. The British army saw the rhomboid Landships as a dead end and moved to turreted tanks in 1923 with the Vickers Medium Mark I. A total of 168 Medium Mark I and Mark II were manufactured in 1922–27, and small numbers were later exported.
THE TANKETTE FAD
The single most influential source of new tanks in the late 1920s and early 1930s was the British armaments firm Vickers Armstrong. These tanks were commercial designs, intended for export, and not specifically designed for the British army. Many of the early designs were the products of two exceptional engineers, Sir John Carden and Vivian Loyd.1 Their designs led to the great tankette fad of the early 1930s.
The idea of a small, one-man tank had emerged after World War I as a scout tank for the larger tanks. The aim was to build an elementary vehicle around a simple 20-horsepower automobile engine. The first was assembled by Col. G. Martel in 1925. This design inspired the prolific British military writer Capt. Basil Henry Liddell Hart to promote these small vehicles as a “mechanized infantryman.” The homebuilt Martel design was taken up by the automotive firm of Morris, and an improved two-man version was built. Carden and Loyd had set up an automotive business in London after the war, and they eventually became involved in this project. The British army ordered eight each of the Morris-Martel and Carden-Loyd tankettes in 1926 for the Experimental Mechanised Force. The initial designs were technically immature, and the Carden-Loyd version underwent several evolutionary stages before finally emerging as the Mark VI in 1927. One of the main problems with the early designs was a wretchedly short track life. The narrow-pitch cast-iron track of the Mark VI finally reached a durability of 600 miles, which was considered quite good for its day. The British army eventually ordered 250 Mark VIs in 1929–30, though by this stage they had given up on them as tankettes and referred to them as Machine Gun Carriers. From the British perspective, the Mark VI can be seen as an early forerunner of World War II’s ubiquitous infantry carriers.
Many of the smaller and impoverished European armies saw tankettes as a more cost-effective solution to full-size, turreted tanks. Poland acquired over 600 TK and TKS tankettes based on the Carden-Loyd tankette. These are seen here in September 1939 during the defense of Warsaw.
Other armies continued to view the tankette as a viable armored fighting vehicle and not simply as a means to mechanize the infantry. In 1929–30, Vickers sold test batches of the Mark VI to several countries. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union decided to manufacture their own versions under license. Poland built tankettes in two series: the TK-3 in 1931–33 with 300 manufactured, and the improved TKS in 1934–36 with a further 300 built. These were the most numerous Polish armored vehicle in the 1939 campaign.2
The Red Army saw the Carden-Loyd as a means to quickly mechanize its backward tank force, and some 3,297 T-27 tankettes were delivered in 1931–34, making it the most numerous armored vehicle of the early 1930s. The Czechoslovak army eventually ordered 74 Tancik vz. 33 in 1930–34.3 Italy purchased 4 Carden-Loyd Mark VI in 1929 and built 29 under license as the Carro veloce CV 29. The Italian army was not entirely happy with the design, and Fiat-Ansaldo was commissioned to develop an improved type which emerged in 1933 as the CV 3/33. This underwent considerable evolutionary change during its manufacture such as the CV 3/35 and the CV 3/38. The series was later renamed the L.3 (L= leggero, light). In total about 1,320 were built for the Italian army and about 400 for export.4 France also acquired test batches of the Mark VI Machine Gun Carrier but, like the British army, concluded it was better suited to infantry mechanization than for use as a tank. An unarmed French analog was manufactured in 1931–40 as the Renault UE with about 5,300 built. These were used primarily for towing antitank guns and as supply vehicles.
The tankettes had an uninspiring combat record. Their light armor was proof against rifle fire, but by the mid-1930s several armies were developing ammunition for standard 7.62–7.92mm machine guns that could penetrate their thin armor. In terms of mobility, the tankettes were adequate on roads and dry ground but vulnerable to ditching in mud or snow. They were so small they could be stopped by trenches and natural obstructions such as irrigation ditches. Their firepower, usually a single machine gun, was useful for infantry support, but its traverse was extremely limited.
The Italian L.3 first saw combat use in Ethiopia in 1935. During the battle of the Dembeguina Pass on 15 December 1935, a detachment of nine CV 3/33 tankettes was wiped out when they became trapped and attacked from the rear. A relief column with a further ten tankettes was also wiped out after the Ethiopian troops realized they could be immobilized by placing large boulders on the roads.5 Italian tankettes took part in the first tank-versus-tank battle since World War I on 29 October 1936 south of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Three Italian tankettes, including one armed with a flamethrower, were attached to a Nationalist infantry unit and attempted to resist a Republican attack near the town of Seseña. The Republican forces were supported by a newly arrived contingent of fifteen T-26 light tanks. The small tankettes were hopelessly outgunned since their 8mm machine guns could not penetrate the armor of the T-26 tanks. Embarrassing proof of their inferiority came when one of the tankettes was knocked out by a T-26 simply pushing it off the road into a ditch.6 Later confrontations between Italian tankettes and T-26 tanks during the Spanish Civil War did not go any better, and the Italian units soon learned to avoid direct confrontations with Republican tank units.
The Italian army’s principal tank of the 1930s was the L.3 tankette series. It was also widely exported, and the Hungarian army acquired sixty-five of the L.3/35 with an enlarged cupola and a different machine-gun armament.
The combat use of the L.3/35 by Italian units in the Spanish Civil War in 1936–37 revealed the shortcomings of these small vehicles, especially when confronted by more modern tanks such as the Soviet T-26.
The L.3 remained in Italian service during the early battles of World War II, including the 1940 campaign against France, the Balkan campaigns against Yugoslavia and Greece, the battles with the British in the North African desert in 1940–41, and even the campaign in Russia in 1941. By this time, they were hopelessly obsolete but remained in service since the impoverished Italian army had so few modern tanks.
The Poles made extensive use of the TK and TKS tankettes in the 1939 campaign where they were used for both infantry and cavalry support. They had their occasional successes when used against German infantry. A small number of tankettes upgraded with 20mm guns even managed to knock out a few German light tanks. However, they were completely useless when the German 37mm antitank guns were present on the battlefield and hopelessly outmatched in most tank-versus-tank encounters.
The Red Army still had 2,279 T-27 tankettes in service at the time of the German invasion on 22 June 1941, plus a further 182 that had been converted into unarmed tractors. They were mainly relegated to a training role by this stage, though a few were thrown into combat in desperate circumstances.
Overall, the tankette concept proved to be shortsighted. They were mostly adopted as expedient tanks by impoverished armies such as those of Italy and Poland that could not afford larger and more expensive tanks.
LIGHT TANKS OF THE 1930S
As in the case of tankettes, Vickers proved to be the most influential source for light reconnaissance tanks in the early 1930s. These differed from the tankettes in one crucial respect: They were large enough that their machine-gun armament could be mounted in a turret. They gradually grew larger than the tankettes, with suspensions that were more suitable for cross-country travel. Several different Carden-Loyd and Vickers-Armstrong designs were on offer, including amphibious types. The first Mark I light tank was built for the British army in 1928, and 115 Mark I–Mark V tanks were purchased by the British army through 1935, plus a further 60 for the Indian army. Eventually, 11 countries bought Vickers light tanks, and in many of the smaller armies—such as those of Belgium, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland, and the Dutch East Indies—they were the backbone of their tank force up to the start of World War II. In numerical terms, the sale of 8 amphibious tanks to the Soviet Union in 1930 had the largest outcome. These tanks served as the basis for the later Soviet T-37 amphibious tank, with some 2,549 manufactured in 1933–36. Its further evolution, the T-38 amphibious tank, added another 1,382 tanks in 1936–39 for a grand total of 3,931. To put this in some perspective, this production was more than all British or German tank production in 1930–39.
Landsverk in Sweden attempted to get into the tank export business in the 1930s with their attractive L-60 light tank. License production rights were obtained by Hungary, which manufactured it as the Toldi during the first years of World War II.
The Vickers 6-Ton tank was one of the most successful light export tanks of the mid-1930s. Poland acquired both the gun type with short 47mm gun and the twin-turret type with machine guns. The Polish vehicles were later modified with a cowl over the radiator cover for better protection. These served in 1939 in the 10th Mechanized Brigade.
Vickers also enjoyed sales with the Vickers-Carden-Loyd Model 1931 amphibious tank and sold twenty-nine to China in the 1930s. They served with the 1st Armored Battalion in Shanghai and saw combat with the Japanese.
Aside from direct derivatives of the Vickers light tanks, some nations manufactured tanks that were clearly inspired by these designs. The French cavalry’s AMR 33 and AMR 35 have a clear link to the British designs. The culmination of the Vickers light tank series was the Mark VI, including the later Mark VIB. These entered production in 1936 and the British army ordered about 1,320 of the different variants, making it the most important British tank of the prewar period in terms of numbers built. This type saw its combat debut in France in 1940 and in the desert war against Italy in North Africa. It remained in service in North Africa well into 1942, though its role was increasingly limited to a cavalry scouting function due to its modest armament.
Germany’s PzKpfw I is often derided as nothing but a training tank, but by the standards of the early 1930s it was a robust and well-engineered design. It was armed with twin 7.92mm machine guns.
Germany had been restricted by the Versailles Treaty after World War I from building or deploying tanks. The rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party and their accession to power in 1933 led to a growing remilitarization. Although Germany had deployed only a handful of A7V tanks in 1917–18, the revived German army showed a great deal more interest in tanks than had the Kaiser’s army. Germany had been clandestinely developing tanks in collusion with Soviet Russia in the late 1920s, most notably the Grosstraktor medium tank. This was recognized to be a technical dead-end, but development of new medium tanks was expected to take several years before they would be ready for production. In the meantime, the German army wanted significant numbers of new tanks to equip their new panzer units and to begin large-scale tactical experiments. Lacking an established tank industry, the army leaders realized that an inexpensive light tank would be the best short-term solution. This led to production of the PzKpfw I, starting in 1934. This tank was roughly comparable to the Vickers light tanks with similar firepower, armor, and mobility. Although the PzKpfw I was later derided as a mere training tank, the design was quite modern and efficient by early 1930s standards. One of its most important if unheralded attributes was good durability, about 1,800 kilometers between major overhauls compared to about 800 kilometers for contemporaries such as the Soviet T-26 tank.
The PzKpfw II was an attempt to design an inexpensive tank with better antitank capability in the form of its 20mm cannon. It was the backbone of the German panzer divisions into 1941 until enough PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV were available. Here, a crew from Panzer-Abteilung 40 performs routine maintenance on the 20mm gun barrel of their tank on the Finnish Front in June 1941.
For most of the 1930s, the U.S. Army’s infantry branch preferred twin-turreted light tanks such as this M2A2 of the 66th Infantry Regiment (Tank) at Fort Benning. Beyond it is an experimental tank support gun, an M2A1 light tank hull fitted with a 1.85-inch gun in an open turret.
In contrast to the Infantry, the U.S. Cavalry branch preferred single-turret tanks such as this M1A1 Combat Car of C Troop, 1st Cavalry (Mechanized). The turret armament consisted of a .30-cal and .50-cal machine gun, with the .50-cal heavy machine gun considered its primary antitank weapon.
Vickers developed a family of light tanks for the cavalry role. The Mark VIB was the predominant type in the British army at the start of the war, armed with a .50-cal and .30-cal machine gun.
The Renault Char D1 was yet another elaboration of the basic Renault FT layout, but in a significantly larger and better armored configuration. It saw combat in France in 1940 and in Tunisia in 1943.
By 1935, the German army realized that tanks needed some form of weapon to defend themselves against enemy tanks. Because of the delay in manufacturing their new medium tanks, the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV, they adopted an interim light tank, the PzKpfw II, which had a 20mm gun with modest antiarmor capability against other light tanks.
The tankettes and light tanks described above were mostly armed with light machine guns, though there were occasional experiments to mount heavy machine guns or automatic cannon in the 20mm range. As in the other categories, Vickers-Armstrong was the pacesetter with its Medium E tank, better known as the 6-Ton tank. Originally, this was offered in two versions: the Type A “trench sweeper” fitted with two turrets armed with machine guns, and the Type B armed with a short 47mm gun advertised as a dual-role weapon suitable for use against enemy infantry or tanks. The suspension was a patented double-bogie system with springs that offered a much superior ride to the simple rigid frame suspensions widely used on medium tanks up to that point. Propulsion was a four-cylinder horizontal Armstrong Siddeley in the rear and the transmission and drive sprocket in front. Its armor was fairly standard for the period and only intended to protect against machine-gun fire.
Sales of the Vickers 6-Ton tank caught on immediately. Poland was one of the first customers, buying 38 tanks, including 22 Type A with machine-gun turrets and 16 Type B with the 47mm gun. Poland also bought license production rights and manufactured the type in modified form as the 7TP with an Austrian Saurer diesel engine. In its later 1937 configuration, it was armed with an excellent Bofors 37mm gun. This type was the best Polish tank in 1939, with about 135 in service.
A far more consequential sale was made to the Soviet Union in 1930 for fifteen Type A tanks along with license production rights. The Red Army was shopping around for a new tank to support its rifle divisions, and the Vickers design was considerably more modern than any indigenous designs. After trials of the Vickers, the Red Army started production of its own examples in 1931 as the T-26 light tank. The original version of the T-26 followed the Type A layout with twin turrets but substituted the Soviet DT machine gun for the Vickers. There was some interest in a more powerful armament, and a portion of the tanks began to receive a Soviet copy of the French 37mm SA 18 gun, the same weapon from the Renault FT. These gun-armed tanks had the cannon in one turret and a machine gun in the other. Plans were underway to arm them with an improved 37mm gun with a longer barrel, but this was short-lived.
The Soviet Union purchased license production rights for the Vickers 6-Ton tank. The initial version of the T-26 light infantry tank used the twin-turret configuration with a 7.62mm DT machine gun in each turret.
In 1933, the T-26 was modernized with the development of a new turret armed with the dual-purpose 45mm gun. About half of the production run was fitted with radios that used this archaic clothesline aerial to insulate them from the metal hull.
In the meantime, the Soviet infantry had been examining a variety of antitank guns and accompanying guns. A license was purchased from Rheinmetall to manufacture their new 37mm antitank gun starting in 1930. Once production had begun, the artillery plant proposed increasing the bore of the gun to 45mm to permit the use of a more effective high-explosive round. The original 37mm gun fired a round with only 25 grams of high explosive while the new 45mm high-explosive fragmentation round had 118 grams of TNT. This was attractive to the infantry since it made the gun a dual-role cannon, so it was adopted for service in the spring of 1932. With the infantry accepting this weapon as its principal antitank gun, it made sense to examine it for tank use as well, but the gun was too large to be accommodated in the small turrets of the baseline T-26. At the same time, the Soviets realized that a larger turret could accommodate both the 45mm gun and a DT machine gun. The new T-26 tank with 45mm gun entered completed tests in 1933 and was accepted for service, sometimes called the T-26 Model 1933. For its day, this was the most powerful tank in its class with an excellent dual-purpose gun and a machine gun. It remained in production in improved forms through 1941 with over 10,300 infantry tanks manufactured and a total of over 12,000 of all variants, including flamethrower tanks and self-propelled gun versions. This made it by far the most numerous tank of the 1930s, with production exceeding the total of combined British, French, and German tank production in 1930–39.
The T-26 was exported to Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War in 1936–37. It was by far the best tank in use in this conflict and made it clear that the days of machine-gun-armed tanks were numbered.
Besides license-built copies of the Vickers 6-Ton tank such as the Soviet T-26 and Polish 7TP, the Vickers design inspired several other important light tank designs. The U.S. Army purchased a Vickers 6-Ton tank, but like the British army they were concerned about the durability of the suspension. Instead of the Vickers suspension, the U.S. Army began to move toward the use of a vertical-volute spring suspension that entered serial production of the first M1 light tanks and M1 combat cars. This would eventually become one of the most distinctive features of U.S. tanks of World War II, including the M3 and M5A1 Stuart light tanks, M3 Lee medium tank, and early M4 Sherman tanks.
Czechoslovakia considered adopting the Vickers 6-Ton tank but eventually decided to build its own tanks, the LT vz. 34 and LT vz. 35, both of which were influenced by the British design. Likewise, the Italian medium tanks of the late 1930s, notably the M11/39 and M13/40, also show a strong Vickers influence in their general layout.
One of the more unusual tanks of the interwar years was the Christie wheel-and-track tank. J. Walter Christie was an American automotive engineer best known before World War I for his fire engines. During World War I, he began to design tracked vehicles for the army, mostly self-propelled field artillery vehicles. In the 1920s, he conceived of a convertible fast tank that could be propelled by either tracks or wheels. The tracks could be used when traveling cross-country but removed when traveling on roads, allowing the tank to travel at much higher speeds. This was accomplished by a novel suspension that allowed the lead road wheel to be steered and that connected one of the rear road wheels to the power-train via a chain drive to propel the tank on roads.
Christie had a flamboyant and eccentric personality that rubbed the U.S. Army bureaucracy the wrong way. He was a skilled showman and promoter, and eventually convinced several Congressmen of the brilliance of his new tank design. The U.S. Army was pressured into purchasing a single Christie tank in 1929 for $62,000. This was an enormous sum of money at the time for a tank, and the Army was not pleased when it was learned that Christie was offering the same tank to foreign buyers for considerably less. Furthermore, it was not a real tank, lacking a turret and armament.
Promoters and critics of Christie’s designs waged a boisterous campaign in the press, and after Congressional hearings the Army was pressured into buying seven more tanks. These were all delivered by 1932 and armed with a simple circular turret with a 37mm gun and co-axial .30-cal machine gun. Three of the tanks were issued to the Infantry at Fort Benning as the Convertible Medium Tank T3 while the other four were issued to the Cavalry at Fort Knox as the Combat Car T1. No further purchases were made due to the continuing disputes between Christie and the Army and Army decisions to impose limits on the weight of tanks.
The Christie T3 medium tank was never popular in U.S. Army service due to its technical problems. Two of the seven purchased are seen here serving with the 67th Infantry (Tanks) during summer wargames.
The Christie tanks were never popular in the Army. Many bugs in the design had not been worked out, and spare parts remained a problem throughout their career because of the difficult relationship with Christie’s company. The Cavalry, which might have been expected to be the main advocate for such a design, had very mixed feelings about it. Although more advanced than any other tank in service, the Christie tank soon developed the reputation of a hanger queen due to frequent maintenance problems. During 1932, there was only one day in which all four of the Cavalry’s T1 Combat Cars were in running condition. The mechanized detachment commander derided the design as only a “mobile cradle for an engine.” The Liberty engine and transmission were a frequent problem and led to a number of unsuccessful attempts to develop substitutes. The Cavalry found that the convertible feature was of dubious use due to the long time it took to switch the tank from tracks to wheels and back again. The spring suspension took up so much space in the hull that the fighting compartment was deemed inadequate for a combat vehicle. The Cavalry was also unhappy with the 37mm gun armament, and three of the combat cars had the weapon and mounting removed and a simple mount for a .50-cal heavy machine gun substituted. The Christie tanks faded from view in the late 1930s as newer light tanks and combat cars entered service.
The BT-7 was a complete rework of the BT-5 with a new hull. The later series also introduced an improved turret with angled sides as seen here.
Even though the Christie tank made little impression in the United States, it spurred far more excitement in Europe. In 1929–30, it started a bidding war between Poland and the Soviet Union, both of whom thought it would form an excellent basis for their new tank force. The Soviet Union eventually signed a contract with Christie that included license production rights. After initial tests, the Red Army decided to deal with some of the technical shortcomings and put it into service as the central element in the mechanization of their cavalry. It was locally called the BT tank, an acronym for “fast tank” in Russian. The first batch of BT-2 tanks were equipped with simple cylindrical turrets armed with machine guns. When the T-26 tank received its 45mm turret, the Red Army decided to standardize this design for both the infantry and cavalry tanks, and this version became the BT-5. The BT was powered by the M-17 engine, a Russian copy of the World War I American Liberty aircraft engine. Compared to most tanks of the day that were barely capable of 20 miles per hour, the BT-5 had a sizzling speed of 45 miles per hour on wheels and 30 miles per hour on tracks. It was the second most widely produced tank of the 1930s after its stablemate the T-26, with some 6,565 manufactured.
The BT-5 saw its combat debut in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War and also saw combat in the little-known border wars between Japan and the Soviet Union along the Mongolian frontiers in 1938–39. The BT tank was extensively used at the beginning of the war with Germany in June 1941. In spite of its importance in interwar tank design, its greatest claim to fame came later from its evolutionary offspring, the legendary T-34, which shared its Christie suspension. (The T-34 will figure prominently in later chapters.) Yet the BT tank was outstanding its own right. It was the fastest tank of its generation, even on tracks, and was well armed and well armored for its day. Compared to the T-26, it had better armor, the same basic armament, and better cross-country performance.
During the 1920s and 1930s, there was a fad for multi-turreted tanks, especially multiple turrets on various heavy tank designs. The first of these was the monstrous Char 2C breakthrough tank. There were plans to build about 300 of these for the Allied offensive of 1919. That never happened, and in the end only 10 Char 2C were built. It was the largest, best armed, and best armored tank of the World War I era, with a 75mm gun in the main turret and a separate machine-gun turret in the rear. Vickers Armstrong can lay claim to reviving the multi-turret idea both with their Vickers 6-Ton tank and with their impressive Independent heavy tank of 1926. This had a 3-pounder main gun in the main turret and four small machine-gun turrets around the main turret. This type never entered serial production for the British army. Nevertheless, it served as inspiration for a number of multi-turret tanks in the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan.
The Vickers influence can be most clearly seen in the Soviet T-35 heavy tank. This followed the general layout of the Independent, though it was significantly larger. It had a short 76mm gun in the main turret and four subsidiary turrets, two with 45mm guns and two with machine guns. Only sixty-one were built in 1933–39, and the Red Army soon learned that the multi-turret concept had gone too far. The separate turrets were impossible for the commander to control given the primitive communications on the tanks. Nevertheless, these land battleships were a popular fixture of the parades in Red Square in Moscow. Most of these tanks were abandoned without seeing combat in 1941 due to their mechanical frailties.
The French FCM Char 2C was the ultimate World War I tank, combining the rhomboid shape of British Landships with the innovative turret of the Renault FT. Due to its enormous size, a small machine-gun turret was added on the rear to defend the tank from infantry. The six remaining tanks were in transit to the front in 1940 when the train was blocked; the tanks were demolished by their crews before ever seeing combat.
The Vickers Independent, although never put into quantity production, served as an inspiration around the world for multi-turreted tanks.
The ultimate example of the interwar multi-turreted tanks was the Soviet T-35. This had a main turret with a 76mm gun and four subsidiary turrets, two with 45mm guns and two with machine guns. By the time they saw combat in 1941, they were worn out and most were lost from mechanical breakdowns.
The Soviet T-28 was one of the most powerful tanks of the interwar years, armed with a short 76mm gun and two subsidiary machine-gun turrets. It was also unusual among Soviet tanks of the mid-1930s for being an entirely indigenous design, not based on license manufacture. This particular tank of the 5th Tank Division, 3rd Mechanized Corps, was knocked out near Alytus, Lithuania, during the 1941 Operation Barbarossa campaign.
An alternative to multiple turrets was to mount additional machine guns in barbettes around the fighting compartment. After a prolonged gestation due to a lack of funds, the U.S. Army’s M2 medium tank entered production in 1939, by which time it was woefully obsolete.
A slightly more practical design was the T-28 medium tank. This resembled a shrunken version of the T-35 since it used the same main turret with 76mm gun. However, instead of four sub-turrets, it had only two, both in the front and both armed with machine guns. A total of 503 were manufactured in 1933–40 and they saw extensive combat use in the Russo-Finnish War of 1941 and again in the Barbarossa campaign of 1941. Although not a particularly important tank in the Red Army due to its modest numbers, it was still the most numerous medium tank design of the 1930s.
Germany’s experimental Grosstraktor of 1929 was configured like the Char 2C with a main turret in front and a small machine-gun turret in the rear for self-defense. It mainly convinced the German army that multi-turreted tanks were a bad idea. Japan’s Type 95 heavy tank of 1934 bears a passing resemblance to the Independent, but instead of having multiple machine-gun turrets it had only a single sub-turret with 37mm gun in addition to its main turret. The Japanese continued to experiment with multi-turreted tanks right until 1940, but none reached service use.
The French worked on several medium tanks during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The most important was the Char B battle tank, which started development immediately after World War I. However, its development was so protracted that it did not enter production to any significant extent until 1936, so it will be considered in the next chapter. The only French medium tank to enter production prior to 1936 was the Char D1 infantry tank. This was originally conceived as a follow-on to the Renault FT, but larger, with better armor and a more powerful gun. It still retained the archaic shape of its ancestor. It was accepted for service in 1929; production began in 1931 and 160 tanks were finished by 1935. Compared to later medium tanks, it was slow with a top speed of only 11 miles per hour, but it was well armored with 30mm frontal armor comparable to the German PzKpfw IV of 1940, and had a good dual-purpose 47mm gun. As the only modern tank in the French inventory until 1936, the D1 tanks saw too much use in wargames and training, and in the late 1930s they were sent off to the North African colonies due to their worn-out state. Curiously enough, one battalion returned to France and took part in the 1940 campaign; the other battalion switched sides and served with Free French forces in Tunisia in 1943 alongside the U.S. Army.
The year 1936 was a turning point in French tank production with the start of manufacture of three new types: the Char B, the Renault R-35 infantry tank, and the Hotchkiss H35 infantry/cavalry tank. These come in at the tail end of our period here, so they will be considered in detail in the next chapter on tanks of the blitzkrieg era.
PACIFIC WAR PATH
War clouds appeared in Asia and the Pacific sooner than in Europe. Tanks were used in small numbers in the fighting in China between the warlords and the central government in the 1920s. When Japan began to intervene in China in the 1930s, tanks were used in modest numbers on both sides. Full-scale fighting broke out between China and Japan in the summer of 1937 and both countries used tanks in the fighting for Shanghai and other key locations. The fighting spread farther north with border engagements by the Japanese Kwantung Army and the Red Army. There was extensive tank use by both sides at Lake Khasan in 1938 and Khalkhin Gol in 1939.
Japanese tank development in the 1930s was largely independent, although with significant British influence. Japan acquired a Vickers Model C in 1927. One of the clearest lessons from trials was the desirability of a diesel rather than gasoline engine. The Vickers Model C helped establish the guidelines for the design and production of Japan’s most important tank of the early 1930s, the Type 89 medium tank. The definitive Type 89B with diesel engine appeared in 1933. This tank was armed with a short 57mm gun for infantry support and was the backbone of the Japanese tank force through the late 1930s during the original fighting in China.8
The best of the early Japanese tanks was the Type 89 that entered service in the early 1930s. This Type 89A tank was assigned to the Special Naval Landing Forces and is followed by a Carden-Loyd Mark VI tankette. The Type 89 had a short 57mm gun and a light machine gun, which in this view is positioned forward while the 57mm gun is aimed aft.
Japan also acquired Carden-Loyd tankettes, but trials led to the conclusion that these were too small and light. Instead, Japan moved in the direction of the Vickers light tanks with the indigenous Type 94 tankette. Although called a tankette, it was in fact a light tank with a machine-gun turret. Experience with the Type 89 medium tank led the Japanese army to realize that it was too slow to operate with motorized infantry. As a result, a new gun tank entered trials in 1934. It resembled an enlarged version of the Type 94 tankette in terms of suspension, but followed a more conventional layout with a rear-mounted engine and a turret with a 37mm gun in the center. This tank, the Type 95 Ha-Go, eventually supplanted the Type 89 as the Japanese army’s principal tank in China in the 1930s and went on to become the backbone of Japanese tank regiments in the Pacific War of 1941–45. It was ultimately supplemented by the larger Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tank, but this did not appear in significant numbers until 1938.
In general, Japanese tanks of the mid-1930s were comparable to European tanks of the period, with an accent on the infantry support mission. The Type 95 Ha-Go was certainly comparable if not superior to the German PzKpfw I, though smaller and less capable than the Soviet T-26.
China was dependent on imports for its tanks. A number of Renault FT tanks were used by the warlords in the 1920s. The first large-scale purchases by the central government in Nanking did not take place until 1929 when an order was placed for twenty-four Carden-Loyd tankettes from Vickers. A major effort to build up the tank force took place in 1935 with the purchase of ten PzKpfw I tanks from Germany, twenty CV 33 tankettes from Italy, twenty Vickers 6-Ton tanks, and twenty-nine Vickers amphibious tanks. Many of these took part in the fighting with the Japanese army in Shanghai in 1937.
TOP TANK OF THE ROARING THIRTIES
So what was the Top Tank of the Roaring Thirties? Some tanks can be ruled out rather quickly. The little tankettes, popular in Italy and Poland, do not stack up well in any major category and so can be quickly discarded. French tanks, with the exception of the infantry’s D1, were mostly light cavalry tanks with very modest firepower. Likewise, the most numerous British type during this period was the Mark VI light tank, not a world beater in firepower or armor. Germany’s main tank during this period was the PzKpfw I light tank, with no significant advantages over the British Mark VI or French types such as the AMR 33 cavalry tank.
The most likely candidates for Top Tank in this era are the Soviet designs, if for no other reason than their enormous variety. The Soviet Union began a major tank production program in 1931, three or four years before most European armies. As a result, by 1936 there was a wide range of tanks available, from the T-27 tankette through the T-26 infantry tank and BT-5 cavalry tank, up to the T-35 land battleship.
In terms of sheer numbers, the T-26 and BT-5 are the most obvious contenders. In terms of firepower, they are both equivalent since they shared a common turret with its 45mm gun. This weapon was superior to the machine-gun armament common with French, British, and German tanks of the period since it offered an excellent balance of antiarmor and antipersonnel capability, supplemented by a co-axial machine gun. Armor was comparable to or better than the western European types. Between the two types, the BT-5 had an edge in armor and mobility as well as thicker front hull armor than the T-26. In addition, it had a more powerful engine which gave it higher road speed, and a more elaborate suspension which gave it better cross-country performance. The Soviet T-28 medium tank is another contender, offering thicker armor and more firepower than the BT-5.
The T-28 remained a viable design well into the early years of World War II. This particular captured Finnish example is from the final series, which had an added layer of armor and the improved L-10 76mm gun. SA-KUVA
The Red Army bought license production rights for the Christie and built them as the BT for cavalry mechanization. The BT-5 was armed with the same 45mm gun and cylindrical turret as the T-26 infantry tank. The Red Army was an early advocate of tank radios, as can be seen from the clothesline antenna. However, the early radios were delicate and unreliable. The tanks behind are the earlier BT-2 armed with twin machine guns.
I give my nod for the Tanker’s Choice of the Roaring Thirties to the T-28 for its armor and firepower. Since the BT series was over ten times more numerous than the T-28 and the basis for mechanizing the Soviet cavalry, I give my nod for Commander’s Choice to the BT-5 for its mixture of technical features as well as its importance in Red Army mechanization.