Saint Chamond and Schneider CA-1 Tanks

The first French tank. Based on the Holt Tractor design, the first were ordered beginning in February 1916. The Schneider Char d’Assaut 1 (CA1) went into action on the Chemin des Dames on 16 April 1917, during the Nivelle Offensive. Later the Japanese purchased a few. Designed primarily for infantry support, the CA1 had poor cross-country mobility and trench-spanning ability; gasoline tanks were vulnerable to enemy fire.

 Ordered slightly after the CA1, the St. Chamond first saw action in the April 1917 Nivelle Offensive. At end of the war 72 of 400 were still in service. Later Lithuania and Spain secured some examples. Dual controls allowed the St. Chamond to be driven from either end, but like the Schneider it suffered from poor cross-country performance.

Although the British built the first tanks, the French actually built many more of them (4,800 French tanks to 2,818 for the British). The French first became interested in a tracked vehicle in 1915, as a means to flatten barbed wire. Then, that December, a French artillery colonel, Jean E. Estienne, wrote General Joffre suggesting that the French build caterpillar-type vehicles similar to the Holt tractors he observed in use by the British to move about their artillery. Estienne, who stressed the need for speed in development, proposed an armored box that would mount a quick-firing gun.

In February 1916, following an investigation of the possibilities, Joffre ordered 400 of these from the Schneider Company and, shortly thereafter, another 400 from the Compagnie des Forges d’Honecourt at Saint Chamond. The first Schneider CA1 was delivered to the French Army on 8 September 1816. It was not an innovative design. It basically consisted of an armored box hull mounted on a Holt tractor chassis. The chief changes from the original design were that the Schneider had a crew of six men rather than four and mounted a short 75mm gun instead of a 37mm main gun. The Schneider weighed some 32,200 pounds and had a vertical coil suspension system. Double doors at the rear provided access for the crew, and there was a ventilator attached to the top. The 75mm main gun was mounted on the right-hand side facing forward; the Schneider also had two machine guns, one to each side. Maximum armor thickness was 11.5mm and its 70-hp liquid-cooled engine could drive the tank at a maximum speed of 3.7 mph.

The St. Chamond was far bigger than the Schneider. It weighed 50,700 pounds and had a 90-hp engine that produced a maximum speed of 5.3 mph. Dual controls allowed the tank to be driven from either end, but it had poor cross-country maneuverability. Its crew of nine men manned a 75mm main gun and four machine guns. Its 75mm, unlike that on the Schneider, was a normal rather than short-barreled gun. Unlike the British, the French did not place great emphasis on trench-spanning or cross-terrain capability in their armored vehicles and thus their types were inferior to those of their ally in cross-terrain capability. The Schneider could only span a trench of 70 inches, a major shortcoming. The St. Chamond could span an 8-foot trench. As with all the early tanks, the St. Chamond was mechanically unreliable; and with the moving parts of the engine exposed inside the tank, the tank interior was a dangerous place for the crew. The St. Chamond seemed superior on paper to the Schneider because of its superior main gun, longer track, and an electrical as opposed to mechanical transmission, which made driving it far easier. But its greater weight made it less maneuverable over soft ground, and the front of its hull projected well over the tracks, greatly reducing its trench-spanning ability. It also was far less reliable mechanically than the Schneider.

By the summer of 1916 the British and French were producing numbers of tanks, but unfortunately for the Allied side, there was no design coordination or joint plan for their use. The British, who had the lead in their production, were also the first to employ tanks in battle.

Astonishingly, the French and British worked on the new war weapons quite independently. As with the British, the French endeavored to keep their work secret; but unlike their ally, the French resisted the temptation to use the new weapon before they thought they had sufficient numbers. One can thus imagine the chagrin of the French to learn that the British had employed their tanks first. The French did not deploy their tanks until seven months later, during the April 1917 Nivelle Offensive on the Western Front.

In July 1916 Colonel Estienne had been reassigned from his artillery command at Verdun and attached to Joffre’s headquarters in order to organize and command the French tank units, what became known as the “Artillerie d’assault.” Estienne organized the tanks into groups (groupes) of 16 tanks each, each of which was organized as the artillery into four batteries of four tanks. Organization of the Artillerie d’assault began in August 1916 at Marly near Paris (the first group was organized that October). Later the French established a training center at Cercottes near Orléans. Estienne also established his headquarters at Champlieu, where a tank camp was also located. By the end of March Estienne had assembled there 13 groups of Schneiders and two of St. Chamonds. The crews were drawn from the army and even the navy, but for the most part they came from the cavalry, which was steadily being reduced in numbers during the course of the war. As with the first British tank units, the crews for the most part lacked any technical expertise whatsoever, although the French assumed that two to three months’ training would be sufficient.

Much to Estienne’s profound disappointment, the British employment of tanks at the Somme the previous September ended the possibility of a surprise mass attack and caused the Germans to widen their trenches. His original plan had been for a surprise mass attack against the German trenches in which the tanks would precede the infantry. Upon crossing the first trench line, half of the tanks were to pin down the German defenders with fire, allowing the infantry to flow through the gaps opened and secure the German trenches.

Estienne now scaled down his ambitions and developed new tactics. Under these, the tanks were assigned the more modest role of serving as a form of “portable artillery” operating in support of infantry. Their task was to accompany the infantry and reduce those pockets of resistance not wiped out in the preliminary bombardment. This became stated French armor doctrine into World War II.

Estienne’s general order of January 1917 called for tank assaults to be mounted in early morning and in fog, if possible. Attacks were to be continuous with the tanks to be capable of moving at 2 mph for up to six hours to be followed by carriers transporting fuel and supplies. Estienne also stressed the need for thorough coordination beforehand with infantry, artillery, and aircraft. Infantry operating with the tanks were to be specially trained and would assist the tanks in crossing obstacles. Tanks were, however, free to move ahead of the infantry if unimpeded.

Although all 400 tanks ordered from the Schneider Works were to have been delivered by 25 November 1916, only eight were in army hands by that date. These were also of lighter construction, being built for training purposes. By mid-January 1917 there were only 32 training tanks. By April 1917, when their first tanks saw action, the French had 200 Schneiders ready, four times the number the British had used on the Somme. There were only 16 Chamonds available by that date, and the only ones to accompany the Schneiders were four unarmed vehicles used to carry supplies.


At 6:00 a. m. on 16 April 1917, following a 14-day bombardment by 5,544 guns, the French army commander, General Robert Nivelle, launched a massive offensive against the Germans in the Champagne area of the Western Front. Touted by Nivelle as a means to break the deadlock on the Western Front, the offensive is known as the Second Battle of the Aisne and Third Battle of Champagne and also the Nivelle (or Spring) Offensive. Unfortunately the plans had been so widely discussed as to be an open secret; the Germans even captured a copy of the French operations order in a trench raid before the attack. The Germans had built a defense-in-depth and pulled back most of their front-line troops, which meant that the effect of the preliminary French bombardment was largely wasted against a lightly held German forward defensive zone. On 16 April General Joseph Alfred Micheler’s 1.2 million-man Reserve Army Group attacked along a 40-mile section of front between Soissons and Reims, his objective the wooded ridges paralleling the front known as the Chemin des Dames. The brunt of the attack was borne by General Charles Mangin’s Sixth Army and General Olivier Mazel’s Fifth Army.

In the attack Mazel’s Fifth Army deployed 128 Schneider tanks. Although they went into action the first day, they contributed little to the outcome of the battle, their crews finding it difficult to negotiate the rough terrain. St. Chamonds first saw action several weeks later at Laffaux Mill on 5 May 1917, but they experienced similar problems and indeed did not perform as well as the Schneiders. Many broke down during the long approach march and did not even make it to the battlefield. From the group of 16, only 12 made it to the line of departure. Several more were unable to advance, and three were destroyed in action.

The Schneiders and St. Chamonds had little impact on the outcome of the offensive, which the French called off on 9 May with only minimal gains. Far from winning the war, the Nivelle Offensive turned into near-disaster for the French army, as it led to widespread mutinies among the French front-line divisions. New French army commander, General Henri Philippe Pétain, charged with restoring the army, sought to improve conditions for the men and address their concerns. He told them he would not spend their lives needlessly and that he would remain on the defensive until such time as a true war-winning offensive was possible. “I am waiting for the Americans and the tanks,” he declared.

Despite major battles along the Western Front in 1917 and attendant wastages of manpower and military equipment, the Western powers continued to build up their tank strength. Training and tactics also improved. By late November the French had some 500 Schneiders and St. Chamonds.



French Military Doctrine – 1940

What kind of war was the French army expecting and how was it intending to use its arms? It is commonly asserted that, through a mixture of complacency, conservatism, and intellectual laziness, the French had failed to modernize their military thinking and were preparing to fight the previous war again. In 1950, the parliamentary inquiry into the causes of France’s defeat concluded: ‘[T]he General Staff, retired on its Mount Sinai among its revealed truths and the vestiges of its vanished glories, devoted all its efforts to patching up an organization outmoded by the facts.’ Was this true?

The main charge is that the French military had not adapted to the idea of mobile warfare and had neglected the possibility of grouping tanks together so that they could be deployed offensively and autonomously rather than playing an infantry support role as in the Great War. One of the earliest advocates of using tanks like this was General Jean-Baptiste Estienne, the so-called ‘father of the tank’, who started in 1919 to argue for the development of heavy breakthrough tanks that could be deployed independently of the infantry. As Inspector of Tanks between 1921 and 1927, Estienne instigated studies of the development of armour. Although he had a decreasing influence on military policy, the prototype heavy tanks that he commissioned in 1921 were the ancestor of the B1. Without him, France would probably not have had a heavy tank ready at the start of the 1930s.

The modernization of the army started at the beginning of the 1930s under the inspiration of General Weygand, even before the first rearmament programmes had been adopted. In 1930 Weygand launched a programme to motorize seven infantry divisions and he initiated the creation of an armoured division in the cavalry in October 1933. The setting up of this ‘light mechanized division’ (DLM) meant that, far from being mired in the past, France had the world’s first standing armoured division (two years before Germany). At this stage, however, the cavalry lacked a really powerful combat vehicle and the DLM sounded more impressive on paper than it was in reality. The SOMUA tank was developed precisely to meet this need, and once these started to come off the production lines the DLMs had powerful armour at their disposal.8 Even so, the first DLM was not fully operational until the start of 1938. A second DLM was created in 1937 and a third in February 1940. In addition, the five remaining cavalry divisions had been partially motorized and consisted of a mixture of horse and motorized vehicles (‘oil and oats’). These developments did meet with some resistance from traditionalists like General René Altmayer, who thought that the cavalry could best carry out its tasks with horse units, and worried about an excessive dependence on petrol. But there were ardent advocates of modernization like General Jean Flavigny, who had been involved in the development of the SOMUA tanks and became the commander of the first DLM when it was set up.

The DLMs were designed to carry out the cavalry’s traditional tasks of reconnaissance, screening operations, and forward delaying actions. They were not intended to be able to break through the enemy lines. For this task it was necessary to establish more heavily armoured divisions, capable of acting autonomously. But progress towards this objective was very slow. In September 1932 experimental manoeuvres took place to study the possibility of developing heavy armoured divisions. The problem was that since at this time the army only possessed three heavy (B1) tanks, the manouevres had to be carried out by combining these with lighter infantry accompanying tanks (H35, R35). These two different kinds of tanks could not really be used together, and the exercise was considered to have been a failure. Thus, for the moment, the army abandoned the attempt to develop heavy divisions and concentrated mainly on the production of light infantry support tanks. On the other hand, the B1s still continued to roll slowly off the production lines, even if there was no clear idea how they were to be deployed. Given that the French military had at this stage no doctrine for the use of heavy tanks, it is a testimony to the continuing legacy of Estienne that any were being produced at all. But this was also a drawback. It meant that the specifications of these vehicles had not been drawn up to meet the requirements of evolving military doctrine, but that the doctrine would have to adapt itself to the tanks that were being produced (the opposite of the situation of the cavalry where the SOMUA had been designed to meet specific requirements).

The most eloquent and public plea for the development of independent armoured divisions came in 1934 with the publication of the book Vers une armée de métier [Towards a Professional Army] by the relatively unknown Colonel Charles de Gaulle. In 1940 this book was translated into English with the title The Army of the Future. The cover bore the words: ‘A 1934 Prophecy! France disregarded it! Germany worked on it!’ In many respects, de Gaulle’s book was prescient, but it probably did little to advance the cause he was advocating. Indeed de Gaulle possibly even harmed his case by linking the technical issue of tank deployment to the politically sensitive issue of the professional army. While the modernization of the army might have required the recruitment of some specialized personnel—radio operators, mechanics—it did not necessarily imply full professionalization. By making this point the centre of his argument, de Gaulle was bound to antagonize politicians who were suspicious of professional armies for political reasons. De Gaulle’s book is indeed suffused with a romantic and almost mystical celebration of the military vocation and the role it could play in national regeneration. This was not the best way to win converts.

Within the High Command, however, there were others pushing more discreetly, and more effectively, for armoured divisions. The keenest advocates were Generals Pierre Héring and Gaston Billotte; the most sceptical was General Dufieux, Inspector of Infantry. The slow production of B1s continued to hinder the holding of trials, and provided arguments for the conservatives. As Dufieux said after the war: ‘[W]e were able to lay down our regulations only … according to the number and possibility of tanks which we possessed.’ It is difficult to say where Gamelin stood. He was to be found arguing for armoured divisions from 1936, but other comments he made underplayed their importance. In 1939 he remarked that ‘armoured divisions … can handle local operations, like reducing a pocket, but not an offensive action’. He told the army commissions of the Chamber and Senate in July 1939: ‘One must not exaggerate the importance of mechanized divisions. They can play an auxiliary role in enlarging a breach, but not the major role that the Germans seem to expect of them.’ Nonetheless in December 1938 the Army War Council (CSG) finally decided to establish two heavy armoured divisions known as DCRs (Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve [Reserve Armoured Divisions]). Continued bottlenecks in production meant that this order could not immediately be translated into reality, and as a result little was done to disseminate information on the employment of tanks. The contents of the ‘provisional notice on the use of tanks’ that had been drafted in 1938 was kept so secret that General Georges felt compelled to write to the General Staff in January 1940: ‘[T]hey cannot remain secret indefinitely if one wants them to become sufficiently known.’

At the declaration of war, the first DCR was still not ready. But in the light of the German use of tanks in Poland, it was decided in December 1939, on Billotte’s initiative, to create two more. By the start of May 1940, three DCRs were in existence, although the shortage of B1bis tanks meant that they had to be partially equipped with less powerful vehicles that had been designed to accompany the infantry. A fourth DCR was created in the heat of battle on 15 May. Even if one includes this fourth unit, the result was that, of the 2,900 French tanks in 1940, only about 960 were organized in armoured divisions (3 DLMs and 4 DCRs). The others were dispersed through the rest of the army in infantry support roles. The Germans, on the other hand, concentrated all their 2,900 tanks into ten Panzer divisions grouped into Panzer Corps. The DCRs and the DLMs comprised each on average about 160 tanks (about half of them light infantry tanks); a Panzer division averaged about 270 tanks.

Despite the decision to establish the DCRs, French army doctrine allotted them only a limited role. They could launch blows against an enemy that was not well organized defensively or had already been undermined by other action, they could operate in conjunction with the DLMs in counterattacks, and they could exploit a successful offensive. But whatever kind of operations they undertook, they were always to function under corps or army control—that is, as part of larger infantry units. In other words, they had to fit into the army’s prevailing doctrine, which was encapsulated by the idea of the ‘methodical battle’ (bataille conduite). The ‘methodical battle’ started from the premiss that in modern warfare the strength of firepower bestowed an immense advantage upon the defender. Massing the amount of material necessary to carry out a successful offensive was a complex logistical operation that required meticulous preparation. What the army wanted to avoid above all were improvised ‘encounter battles’ where moving armies came upon each other without having prepared their positions. Instead the emphasis of French doctrine was on a tightly controlled battle where decision-making was centralized at the highest levels. This was in stark contrast to German doctrine, which encouraged initiatives by lower-level commanders.

If the enemy managed to break through the front, the French response was known as colmatage, plugging the gap by moving reserves into the path of the attacking troops in order to slow down their advance and restore a continuous front. Infantry remained the key to victory: ‘[P]rotected and accompanied by its own guns and by the guns of the artillery, and occasionally preceded by combat tanks and aviation … the infantry conquers the ground, occupies it, organizes it and holds it.’ These were the words of the 1921 Provisional Instruction on the Tactical Employment of Large Units. This famous document, which codified French doctrine, was revised in 1936, but this new draft asserted that the 1921 version, ‘fixed by our eminent leaders’ must ‘remain our charter’. Having establised this, it did go on to offer some qualifications. It noted the ‘acceleration of battle’ and affirmed that ‘the offensive is the pre-eminent mode of action’ and the defensive the ‘attitude momentarily chosen by a commander who does not feel able to take the offensive’. The document concluded: ‘[H]owever strong fortified fronts, the decision … will only be obtained by manoeuvre in which speed and mobility are essential.’ All this seemed to embody a characteristically Gamelinesque tension between two positions, between the overwhelming imperative of attack and the inherent superiority of defence. The circle was squared by the concept of ‘methodical battle’, which described the conditions in which a successful offensive might occur but set almost impossibly tough prerequisites for success.

In the end, then, while it would not be true to say that the French army in 1940 had learnt nothing and was planning to fight the last war again—the French army of 1940 was very different from that of 1918—or that the military were not engaged in intensive discussions about the most appropriate ways of modernizing the army, the changes which had occurred were basically incremental adjustments, albeit important ones, of a corpus of doctrine that had not fundamentally altered.

Armoured Forces

At the beginning of the war the French Army had no tank divisions whatsoever and the British only one. As has been stressed here, German tanks were not always superior to those they faced and were often markedly inferior. The key to German success on the battlefield was in the tactical doctrine governing their use, as well as in training and leadership.

The Germans were successful in their initial campaigns because they worked out a flexible system that combined infantry, artillery, tanks, and supporting aviation in one integrated military effort. Unit commanders had great flexibility, and they could concentrate forces quickly to exploit any situation that might develop. Command and control between units and even individual tanks was facilitated by the efficient use of radio.

The French, regarded by many observers as having the most powerful army in Europe, in fact lacked the ability to employ their military strength promptly and to good advantage. It was primarily a failure of doctrine rather than any equipment shortcomings that did in the French. The French Army divided control of its tanks between the infantry and cavalry. Infantry commanders saw the tanks solely as a means of infantry support; the cavalry regarded them chiefly in a reconnaissance role. Another consequence of this division was a multiplicity of designs.

Following the declaration of war, the French were slow to mobilize, and in the two weeks it required them to call up reservists and bring artillery from storage, it became clear that Poland was already collapsing. Even so, a vigorous French thrust would have carried to the Rhine with tremendous consequences for the course of the war, as the German strategic plan committed the vast bulk of German strength, some 60 divisions, to Poland and left only a weak force to hold the Rhineland. The latter numbered only 40 divisions (36 of which were untrained), with no tanks, little artillery, and few aircraft. The French moved belatedly and timidly and, after securing a few villages, withdrew the few divisions committed to the effort. Senior French and British commanders had rejected the new theories of high-speed armor warfare. They persisted in viewing tanks as operating in support of infantry, to be spread over the front in small packets rather than being massed in entire divisions.

The Polish campaign of September 1939 revealed the errors in Allied thought concerning armor. In their invasion the Germans pressed into service all available tanks, hoping that sheer numbers and their employment en masse would make up for any equipment and armament shortcomings. As noted earlier, in all they had some 2,900 tanks, most of them PzKpfw Is and IIs.

The success of the German blitzkrieg lay not in numbers of tanks but in the formation of combined arms teams. The problem in World War I had been the inability of an attacker’s reserve formations to close quickly once a breech had been created in an enemy’s lines; the attacker’s artillery would also have to be repositioned to support a further advance. The new German theory of high-speed warfare called on mechanized reserves and artillery to move at the speed of the tanks, all supported by aircraft, greatly compressing the time line in favor of the attackers.

General Heinz Guderian, who developed the blitzkrieg, saw the need to use the tanks en masse in divisions for breakthrough shock power rather than dispersing them. German forces were to locate weak points in the enemy battle line, then build up strength at these points, holding them with infantry and antitank guns, hoping to lure enemy tanks into attacking and running into the more powerful antitank guns. Such tactics would save the German tanks for the exploitation role.

These reinforced points would serve as pivots, from which the tanks would achieve fast, sudden breakthroughs without warning or the benefit of preliminary bombardment. Infantry would move with the tanks in a column of tracked vehicles and trucks. The whole idea was to keep moving and to stage deep penetrations and encirclements of enemy forces. The attacking forces would be largely self-contained for a matter of three to four days. Vital to German success was control of the air, ensured by having the world’s most powerful air force. The Luftwaffe was basically a tactical air force, developed for close ground support, and the key to this was the “flying artillery” provided by the Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber. Although it later proved vulnerable to antiaircraft guns and high-performance fighters, the Stuka’s early opponents had few of those types of equipment, and it proved to be a highly mobile and accurate artillery platform that greatly aided the advance of the tanks below.

During the Polish campaign, enemy dispositions played into the Germans’ hands. Polish forces were still in the process of mobilization, thanks to the British insistence that the Poles provide no excuse for the Germans to invade. Also, Polish Army leaders placed the bulk of their forces far forward. They were unwilling to yield territory to the Germans (indeed, they expected to carry the war into Germany themselves), but in such forward positions they were more easily cut off, surrounded, and destroyed. Poland was also at sharp geographical disadvantage. Attacked by German forces on three sides, it in fact had little chance. With France slow to move, and then only with a small force, and with the Soviet Union invading Poland from the east two weeks after the initial German invasion (in accordance with a secret arrangement with Germany), Poland succumbed after one month.

Airpower played such an important role in the German success in Poland that the German Army then assigned each panzer division its own air force element. The Germans also learned from the Polish campaign that it was difficult for truck-mounted infantry to keep up with the tanks and that it was impossible for them to move across open country. Trucks were vulnerable even to enemy rifles and machine guns. Accompanying infantry required cross-country mobility and some armor protection, and this meant increasing reliance on armored personnel carriers and other tracked vehicles.

One often overlooked factor in the German success in Poland, as well as in the May-June 1940 campaign against the Low Countries and France, was the short distances involved and thus the assurance of adequate resupply of fuel and ammunition. The blitzkrieg functioned well in the dry, flat terrain and the relatively short distances of Poland and the well-developed road network of France in 1940. It broke down completely in the vast distances and poor transportation system of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The Allies understood the important role tanks could play in stiffening the resolve of infantry. They also introduced some numbers, albeit insufficient, of assault guns and self-propelled antitank guns working with the infantry. Such weapons came to play a key role in armored warfare, as did development of larger high-velocity guns to defeat improved armor protection.

Shot Kal Project

The problems were at every level of tank operation and led to many crew members feeling that the tank ‘s performance and ability to fight suffered, feelings shared by high ranking armor corps officers and staff. Some of the problems were initially addressed during the Centurion’s early years of service by a host of minor, temporary and frequently inadequate modifications to some of the tanks. Amongst these early modifications, at least two significant upgrades were also completed in that period: the inclusion of the external rear hull fuel tank and the use of the British L7 105mm gun on some of the Centurions (for complete details on the early years of the Centurion in IDF service, see the first two parts of this series).

The main problem with the Centurion in IDF service was its petrol-fueled Meteor engine. This engine’s problems included a short service life, a lack of power resulting in a low power-to-weight ratio, the use of an extremely flammable fuel and its high petrol consumption rate, which resulted in an inadequate operational range. Solving the Centurion’s problems required extensive research in order to analyze the tank and its associated systems. The end result was a program that would convert the Centurion or, as it known in Israel, “Shot” (“Whip” in Hebrew), into an advanced tank with greater firepower and range, and with increased operational comfort for its crew and easier maintenance by its mechanics and ordnance staff.

This significant program was given to a special team within the Ordnance Corps. Lead by a very talented Army engineer, Colonel Israel Tilan, the head of the Tank Branch of the Ordnance Corps, the team also included Majors Ben-Zion Ben-Bassat, Moshe Keidar and Arieh Ramon along with IDF civilian employee Uri Yachin. In retrospect, it can be said that the Ordnance Corps met its goals and even exceeded many expectations. Their achievement was publicly honored in 1970 when the team was awarded the prestigious Israel Defense Prize for this project. It should be noted that a few years later Israel Tilan, having been promoted to Colonel, was also very actively involved in the development of the Merkava tank alongside General Israel Tal. As mentioned above, the primary problem with the Centurion was the ageing Meteor Mark 4B, a 650hp water-cooled, gasoline-fuelled engine and a suitable replacement was needed immediately. The team searched the world market for a more modern engine better suited to the needs of the IDF. The new engine had to meet the following requirements:

1 . Due to the urgency of the program, the new engine needed to be in production and available for immediate delivery and not in development

  1. The engine needed to be diesel fueled, because the fuel is less flammable and such engines have greater fuel efficiency
  2. The engine’s purchase must come with no political complications or restrictions
  3. The new engine must be similar in size to the Meteor engine to fit within the existing Centurion engine compartment
  4. The engine must be affordable, since the plan was to convert more than 1000 tanks over several years and the budget was limited
  5. The new engine must provide the specified power, speed and range performance
  6. Ease of maintenance was very important, especially in the field and under combat conditions with limited technical staff
  7. The new engine must be more reliable than the Meteor easier to change out under field conditions with a limited number of mechanics
  8. Local industry must participate in production or maintenance of the new engine

The plan was to start full production of the Shot Kal conversion at the beginning of 1968, but the project was postponed because of technical and bureaucratic problems and then delayed again due to the onset of the Six Day War. Although the war resulted in great victory for Israel over the 3 strongest enemy Arab states, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the program continued to be delayed after the war because the Ordnance Corps was fully engaged with higher priority tasks. Returning the IDF Armor Corps to full combat readiness was at the top of that list, so no space or manpower was available to convert Centurions. When the Ordnance Corps was eventually ready to restart the project, the conversion program was further delayed by the reinstatement of the unofficial American weapons embargo that had been in place against Israel since 1948. Although the embargo had been weakening since the beginning of 1964, it was more strictly reinstated for several months after the war.

Long experience with the embargo had produced Israeli search and purchase teams that knew just how and where to buy weapons while under the sanctions and the first rule was; don’t waste time trying to go through the United States government, the best bet was to approach American producers directly to examine their products. The head of the Ordnance Corps and the main driving force behind the project, Colonel Amos Horev, visited different companies in the United States to investigate ordering engines. To start the process he presented them with the specification documents that outlined the IDF performance requirements for the new engines. After the first screening of potential candidates, several engines were acquired and tested but only three of them met most of the criteria; the Cummins diesel engine that was then being used to modernize the IDF’s M50 and M51 Sherman tanks, Teledyne Continental’s AVDS-1790-2A air cooled diesel engine and a water-cooled GM diesel engine that was being used at that time to upgrade Italian tanks. After additional trails that including building two prototypes powered by Cummins and Continental engines, the team selected the Teledyne Continental diesel engine. Producing 750 hp, it met most of the criteria, and performed the best in the test program. Although it was the most expensive choice, it had an additional and very significant advantage over others contenders, it was the same engine used in the newest tank in IDF arsenal, the M48A3, allowing standardization with that growing fleet of tanks. In addition, there were plans to upgrade older M48A1 and M48A2C tanks with the Continental engine.

With the limited budgets and manpower of the IDF, standardization was a huge advantage because it significantly reduced logistical issues like the stocking of replacement parts, as well easing the training of the technical staff and mechanics. The adoption of a diesel engine and especially the Continental diesel had many advantages over the gasoline-fed Meteor engine:

  1. Diesel engines are more durable, need less maintenance and have a longer time between overhauls
  2. Diesels are more fuel efficient, significantly increasing the Centurion’s range
  3. The increased power of the Continental engine significantly increased the power-to-weight ratio of the Centurion and it would no longer be considered underpowered
  4. The increase in power resulted in a significant increase in road speed to 45 km/h and in off-road speed to 17 km/h
  5. The higher power-to-weight ratio also allowed the Centurion climb 60 degree slopes
  6. The diesel engine had a significantly lower risk of fire during refueling operations or during engine warm-up
  7. The lower flammability of diesel fuel compared to gasoline meant that vehicle combat survivability was significantly enhanced after hits to the engine or fuel compartments
  8. It was possible to change Continental engines in the field in less than 2 hours compared to the 20 hours required for the Meteor engine
  9. Tank operations were less expensive due to the lower cost of diesel compared to gasoline
  10. Fuel handling logistics were safer and easier with diesel compared to gasoline
  11. Finally, because it was air cooled, the Continental engine did away with the Meteor’s liquid cooling system also eliminating the problems associated with radiators and leaking fluid lines
  12. Combined, these advantages of the Continental engine over the older Meteor greatly increased the operability and the survivability of the Centurion and its crew-members during the battles to come

Replacing the engine was only the first step in modernizing the Centurion. A further problem was the Meritt-Brown Z5IR gearbox. Many IDF Centurion drivers complained about its poor performance. It was very tiring for the driver to have to be continuously changing through the gear train working the transmission’s problematic clutch especially while trying to negotiate the rocky ground of the Golan Heights or during combat operations. The most logical solution was to use the same transmission that was paired to the Teledyne Continental AVDS-1790-2A in the IDF’s M48A3 tanks and so the Allison CD-850-6 automatic transmission was chosen to replace the Centurion’s original Meritt-Brown gearbox.

After the conversions, the life of the IDF’s Centurion drivers changed completely and it was as if they were suddenly driving American civilian automobiles after having struggled with a British heavy track from the 1940s. Not only did the choice of the Allison transmission increase standardization in the logistical train, but the standardization of driver and mechanic training across several vehicle types increased manpower flexibility and reduced overall operating costs even further. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the reduced workload that the new transmission imposed on the driver meant reduced fatigue, a key factor in the middle of demanding battle situations.

In addition to changing the engine, the air filtration system was changed to handle the harsh, dusty conditions of the Negev and Sinai deserts. The design team continued to standardize on M48 systems and chose the Donaldson box air filters to be installed on the fenders on either side of the hull, similar to their installation on the M48A3. The system was hermetically sealed to prevent damage by the heavy dust in these harsh environments. Testing confirmed that the new filters were more durable than the older British system. Even though the power pack and filter systems were an existing and proven system, there was still a need for many changes to the power pack so it would fit within the existing Centurion engine compartment. More than 300 changes were made in collaboration with the Teledyne engineers in the USA after a Centurion tank was cut apart and a full-scale engine compartment was specially built and supplied to the factory from Israel to allow exact placement of the new power pack components.

After months creating the modifications to the Centurion and after more than two years of planning and the preparation of more than a thousand blueprints, it was time to fit the new power pack into a tank in Israel. Everything fit perfectly, but when it came time to put the transmission into first gear, it was discovered that the system wanted to go in reverse! The cause of the problem was quickly discovered, it turned out that the orientation of the engine in the new power pack was rotated 180* to the original Meteor engine, the implications of which were not appreciated before the embarrassing final integration tests. Major Tillan immediately took full responsibility for this embarrassing mistake and, together with Colonel Amos Horev, the head of Ordnance Corps quickly developed the simple solution of adding an additional idler gear to reverse the shaft rotation.  This was another example of Major Tillan ‘s fine leadership, instead of blaming others or making excuses, he took the responsibility onto himself as the head of the project.

In total, more than 2000 new parts were incorporated in the Shot Kal conversion, starting from simple bolts and finishing with the new engine. Half of the parts were produced or bought from local suppliers, and gave additional confidence to the Israeli military vehicle industry in their now-proven ability to cast armor and produce other complicated parts. The rest of the parts were ordered from the US, and were mainly the components related to the engine, gearbox and filters. The orders were placed with the US-based factories in the form of upgrade kits for the engines and gear boxes, and they were similar to kits that were used in the programs to upgrade the earlier M48 tanks like M48A1 and M48A2C to the M48A3 standard in USA as well as Israel. The Shot Kal program provided important experience that, in the end, helped make possible the first Israeli designed and produced main battle tank, the Merkava.

As a result of all the delays, the conversion production line only officially started in the first weeks of 1970, around two years later than planned and, even then, the initial work on the tanks did not include the power packs. Just as Israel was starting the Shot Kal conversion program, it was also running a parallel program to upgrade their early M48 versions to the new M48A3 configuration. The huge numbers of engines needed for the Shot Kal project created engine availability problems when the conversion line finally started. It was hard for the American factories to produce so many engines in so short a time especially when these engines were also needed for the production of new American M48A3 tanks as well as for replacements for the operational battalions in Europe and in Vietnam.

As with the previous Sherman M50 and M51 projects, the original Centurion tanks were stripped down to the hull shell which was then modified and extended to allow addition of another external fuel tank to the rear of the hull.

The remainder of the tank was rebuilt incorporating many new parts that were more efficient, modem and also more economical than the original parts. These modifications were the result of the lessons learned since the introduction of the Centurion into service in the IDF: countless lessons learned from practice drills, combat incidents, and, of course, lessons from the Six Day War itself, in which the Centurion had mainly participated in the Central and South Commands and been the spearhead of the Israeli armored brigades. In addition, many modifications originated from requests from the ordinary crewmen who operated the tanks as well as from the wishes of their commanding officers and the technical support teams. The fighting compartment was totally changed in addition to the work being done in the engine compartment.

The Shot Kal conversion also included the replacement of the original 20 pdr gun with the excellent British 105mm L7 gun, named Shrir (Muscle) by the Israelis, that was being produced under license in Israel. As the same modification had already been performed prior to the Six Day War, this part of the program was straight forward but additional enhancements were included in the Shot Kal program. This time the entire fighting compartment was arranged to enhance combat efficiency. The number of rounds carried was increased to 72, the number of ready rounds was increased, ammunition stowage was better protected and better arranged, eliminating the need to rotate the turret to access the stowed ammunition.

There were other major/minor modifications that had been introduced in previous IDF Centurion improvement programs and these were also added to Shot Kal tanks.

Soviet/Russian Armoured Trains from the Cold War to the Present Day

The end of the Great Patriotic War did not see armoured trains disappear from the Soviet inventory. An armoured train was active during the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and also, up until the 1960s, another was permanently parked in a tunnel in a suburb of Berlin, according to former East German railway workers. Three important periods mark the modern history of these trains: the Sino-Soviet conflict, the wars in Chechnya (1994–6 then 1999–2000), and since 2010, the maintenance of order in the face of the growing insecurity in the republics to the south of Russia (Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingushetia). In addition, the continuing latent rebellion in the Caucasus region requires that appropriate railway security measures remain in force.

Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, tension between the Soviet Union and China mounted over the question of the delineation of the frontier between the two countries, and in particular the status of the island of Damansky (Zhenbao to the Chinese) situated on the River Ussuri which separates the two countries.11 In March 1968, two weeks of fighting ended in a Soviet victory, but both sides continued to build up their forces for a future confrontation. On the Soviet side, the under-developed state of the region12 made the garrisons almost entirely dependent on the Transbaikal and Trans-Siberian railway lines, as much for resupply as for troop movement. The latter line is situated only some 100km (63 miles) from the frontier and is therefore vulnerable to a mass attack. With the whole railway network plus 1,200 sensitive points to protect, only armoured trains had the necessary firepower, flexibility and mobility.

Locomotive Design Bureau No 65 at the Kharkov factory, which had specialised in the production of T-64 tanks and locomotives since it was opened, was charged with the design work. Railway and armoured vehicle components were taken ‘off the shelf’, copying the ideas followed during the Great Patriotic War. Initially, the turrets were to come from T-55 tanks and ZSU 23-4 Shilka anti-aircraft armoured vehicles, armed with four 23mm AZP-2313 cannon. The use of a diesel locomotive circumvented the problems of electricity or alternatively water supply. The locomotive was built in Lioudinovo, and the armoured wagons in Kalinine and Marioupol. The train was ready in 1970 and was tested, but never entered service as the frontier tensions had decreased.

When tension once more increased, the employment of armoured trains was again considered during the establishment of the Far East central command structure in February 1979.

The new concept was modular: each armoured train was to comprise a central train and several autonomous units, with tanks embarked. Each of these armoured attack groups was to be formed with a TGM-14 armoured diesel shunter, positioned in between two flat wagons carrying T-55 or T-62 tanks. At the rear of each platform wagon, a demountable armoured casemate was intended for an infantry detachment, who could observe using periscopes, communicate by radio and fire through loopholes. Each train could include up to five groups of two tanks plus twenty-five men. Thus organised, a train could cover 500km (300 miles) of the rail network, each group covering 100km (60 miles).

The central train was formed from an armoured TG-16 diesel locomotive, a command wagon protected against NBC (Nuclear Bacteriological and Chemical) effects, since it was thought these trains could enter contaminated zones in the event of a nuclear attack. The wagon was armed with two 23mm ZU14 23-4. Additional anti-aircraft defence was provided by an armoured wagon equipped with either two ZU-23-4 or ZU-23-2 mounts. The reconnaissance element was provided by two flat wagons transporting PT-76 amphibious tanks which were protected by lateral armour plates 2m (6ft 6in) high, and able to disembark. The rail reconnaissance company was formed from eight BTR-40 ZhD vehicles, which could be carried over longer distances on flat wagons fitted with rails. In 1969, several BTR-40s were converted into trolleys by using the same method developed by GAZ for the wartime BA64-ZhD. Disembarking them took less than five minutes.

The four trains which were built never went into action, and were stored at Chita, being regularly used for exercises. One of the trains helped with clearing the track of derailed rolling stock in 1986. In January 1990 they were reactivated to go into action during the uprisings in Baku and Sumqayit, to keep open the two key routes linking the South Caucasus with Russia. They arrived on station after the recapture of Baku, but remained active to protect the railway convoys. At the end of their tour of duty, they were gradually dismantled, with the exception of the locomotives.

When the Chechen war began, the railway engineers put a certain number of specialised trains into service, incorrectly described as ‘armoured trains’, which were intended to maintain and repair the rail network and remove mines. It was only at the end of 2002 that four genuine armoured trains were employed, named Amur, Baikal, Don and Terek. Only the last of these included armoured wagons from trains previously taken out of service.

Their composition was generally as follows, with variations in the number and order of the wagons:

– flat wagon with ZU-23-2.

– flat wagon with BMP-2.

– flat wagon with T-62.

– armoured wagon, with fixed turret, for infantry weapons and grenade launchers.

– equipment wagon.

– one or two coaches for the crew.

– two or three safety wagons (carrying sand or ballast).

– one or two flat wagons carrying a signals vehicle.

– locomotive.

In October 2002 a fifth train, the Cosima Minine, joined the base at Hankala, which served as the supply depot for the trains. It had been built by an OMON unit on the base of commercial rolling stock, armoured with all the materials that could be found on site. In particular it transported a BMP-2 with additional protection provided by sleepers and other materials, which were also used on the other wagons of the train.

The armoured trains in the Caucasus are credited with an impressive performance, such as the clearing of mines from 1000km (over 600 miles) of track, the escorting of 100 troop trains, and reconnaissance missions covering the 32,000km (20,000 miles) of track between Russia and Chechnya.

Since 2004, the Russian Army has had a specialised railway unit, the ZhDk (Zheleznodoroznhiki), split into four railway corps, twenty-eight brigades and an unspecified number of units, in charge of military transportation, and responsible for their correct functioning and their protection. The two armoured trains in the North Caucasus (Ingushetia) were activated by the 76th ZhDk based at Volvograd.

With the return of insecurity in 2010, the Cosima Minine, the sole armoured train deployed by the Interior Ministry, was reconstructed and fitted with modern equipment. For mine clearance work, it is equipped with an M4K Kamysh which interferes with the radio detonation of mines up to 20km (12.5 miles) away. Its anti-aircraft defence is provided by two ZPU-4 armoured vehicles, ten AGS-17 automatic chaff launchers and a number of machine guns. Firepower is provided by a 30mm 2A42 cannon, and the 9P135 M anti-tank missiles of a BMP-2 armoured vehicle carried on a flat wagon and protected by a side wall of sandbags. As necessary, one or two T-62 tanks (115mm gun) can be added to the train. On its return to service in around December 2013, it was stationed either at Hankala to the west of Grozny or at Mozdok in North Ossetia, along with other armoured trains.

The other trains were supposed to have been dismantled after the end of the operations in the Caucasus. At the time of writing that order has been rescinded, the Russian Defence Minister having announced their reactivation as part of the modernisation of the armed forces. Certain sources consider that, apart from their value in asymmetric warfare, they could form excellent platforms for the transport and firing of self-propelled artillery pieces such as the brand-new 152mm 2S19 Msta-S howitzer.

Quality versus Quantity?

Although primarily a history of multiple failures, the German heavy fighting vehicles of World War II provided a multitude of challenges within the engineering problems of tank design and manufacture, and several technological exploits resulted from the experience of bringing them to the final stages. In most cases, however, the sheer size, scope and weight of these vehicles generally exceeded the available technologies and manufacturing capabilities.

These setbacks proved no specific undoing for the armies concerned despite the sheer waste of materials one might consider they involved. The numbers attempted remained very small. Above all, the tactical and operational considerations that brought them into development were proven false or obsolete by the time they could have entered service. Fortifications of all kinds and power were encountered and overcome in World War II without the use of specialized armored vehicles. The accomplishment of tactical and operational breakthrough on the modern battlefield came to depend more on numbers, mobility, and logistical sustainment than the application of superior guns and armor at a single point. The minor experiences of German operations with their Jagdtiger tank destroyers pointed out that when not employed in substantial numbers, even super-heavy fighting vehicles were soon overwhelmed and swept aside in the Allied advances.

Above all, the logistical handicaps of the heavies presaged their doom. The operational constraints posed by at least partial disassembly for rail transport, the limitations of bridging and fording means, and the ever-existent possibility of miring in swamps or even city streets that their high length-to-width steering profiles could carve up all made for extraordinary difficulties. Left to their own automotive power for deployment, they could not hold up for long under constant stressing of barely tested components.

As is well known, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in 1941 was intended to be yet another brief campaign in a striking series of victories accomplished by German arms since 1939. The German position that summer was unprecedented, especially given the faulty economic and financial preparations of the Third Reich in the years through 1939. Contrary to the usual view of Nazi efficiency preparing for war with a sustained period of production and investment that yielded the successes later dubbed Blitzkrieg by the foreign press, the pace of German rearmament staggered during 1937–1938. In particular, the steel (and later, copper) rationing required for the three armed services stagnated production of armaments. On the day of the Munich Settlement, the new German priority became the preparation for war with the United Kingdom, plus France, with presumed American support, all targeted for 1942. Yet the 1936 armaments programs for the German Army at that point would require about a fourth of German steel production in 1939 for completion. The new goals for the three services would require three times the 1938 production in the following year.

By the spring of 1939, the Army procurement plan lapsed into full retreat. Ammunition production plummeted, building steel was unavailable for 300 new infantry battalions that lived under canvas, and weapons programs experienced severe cuts; machine gun and field artillery orders fell by at least half and those for the current infantry rifle were ordered to stop by the fall of 1939. The tank production originally programmed for 1,200 medium tanks between October 1938 and October 1939 was halved. At least thirty-four of the planned wartime force of 105 divisions would suffer serious shortages of equipment. Ammunition for all would stall at a quantity sufficient for only fourteen days heavy fighting. The circumstances for the other services remained just as poor.

Accordingly, Hitler grasped the only straw he could, an early launch of the war he had forecast for 1944, then 1942. As he stated to his military leaders at Berchtesgaden on August 22, 1939, “we have nothing to lose; we have everything to gain. Because of our restrictions our economic situation is such that we can only hold out for a few more years. We must act.” Hitler and Germany had run out of time.

The victories came in surprising sequence and ease, especially the fall of France. However, the ability of the German economy to sustain the war effort remained circumspect. It was, for instance, impossible to calculate the requirements for each and every campaign in advance. In the case of the Russian campaign, it had to be supplied while at the same time, Germany and Italy engaged the United Kingdom on several fronts. For the first time, therefore, the economic priorities in 1941 were hitched to the Blitzkrieg concept of short but hard-fought operations, leading to a rapid conclusion on the battlefield. Accordingly, the armaments plan “Rüstungsprogramm ‘B’” would dictate the armaments output for the eight months of October 1940–April 1941 in order to increase the strength of the German Army and its firepower sufficient for the rapid defeat of the Soviet Army and another victory. Before Russia was invaded, it was presumed that the surge of production, materials and labor could be shunted to the navy and air force for the final priority of the United Kingdom.

The emphasis on tank production remained the new model medium tanks with which the German Army had defeated France, not the various projects for heavy tanks that had not been required in the war thus far; they were also not forecast as being required for the Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. These conditions explain to a considerable extent the rather dilatory pace at which the 1939–1941 heavy tank designs had progressed.

The misfortunes of the German Army in Russia mostly fall beyond the scope of this work; however, the defeat of the 1941 Blitzkrieg campaign in Russia had reverberations throughout the structures and programs of the Third Reich, not least of which was the management of the war economy and the German industrial sectors. Not only had the German invasion foundered instead of producing a quick victory, but also that same setback coincided with perhaps a greater danger, the entry of the United States into the war, thanks to Hitler’s declaration of hostilities on December 11, just after the Battle of Moscow had turned badly against his Army. Although Hitler knew that the United States could not effect immediate changes to the Allied situation, the possibility of a long-term war had just received new impetus. For the war industry, ammunition would now become the dominant production category, accounting for half of Minister Speer’s so-called initial “miracle.” By mid-1943, ammunition accounted for half the Army’s steel quota, compared to 15 percent each allocated to weapons and tanks.

The German capacity to continue all parts of the war economy, yet introduce new weapons with an especial urgency easily waned under the conditions of 1942. The German heavy fighting vehicle programs reflected this markedly. Their specialized designs required considerable engineering feats that differed from the continued production of current model medium tanks already entering obsolescence. The rush to produce the heavy tanks and tank destroyers consumed larger amounts of scarce raw materials and also resulted in specific dead ends with commensurate waste. However, to a certain extent, Hitler was correct in calling for the development of superior fighting vehicles to be fielded that would somehow offset the looming gap in numbers German forces faced in fighting the three major Allied powers on the ground. Unable to match the Allies in numbers of weapons and men, superiority would have to be sought in the quality of weapons that would prove decisive on the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The PzKpfw Maus (Mouse) super-heavy tank. A wildly impractical design, it was more suited as a mobile fort (no river bridge existing at the time could take its weight). Produced only as a prototype, the Maus owed its development to Adolf Hitler’s love of the grandiose; he ordered it from Porsche in 1942. Weighing some 188 tons, the Maus was quite simply the heaviest tank in history. It had a 200mm armored carapace over the front hull and mounted a 128mm (5-inch) main gun as well as a coaxial 75mm gun and one 7.62mm machine gun. The intention was that the production version would mount a 160mm (5.9-inch) or even 170mm (6.7-inch) main gun. Although 150 of these monsters were ordered in 1943, the Maus program was plagued by problems, not the least of which was developing an engine capable of moving the immense weight. Only two prototypes were ever produced, one of which survives in a museum near Moscow.

However, such quality weapons could be manufactured, though their impact would still depend upon sufficient numbers being produced along with proper logistical support to keep them in action long enough to gain success on the battlefields where they fought. These factors too would elude the Third Reich in World War II. With only a few factories capable of producing precision forgings and assembling them in rapid sequence, the numbers produced far lagged requirements. The damage inflicted on German industry by Anglo-American strategic bombing exacerbated these shortfalls beginning in mid-1943. Furthermore, the losses sustained in action by these dominant armored vehicles, too often engaged in insufficient numbers to carry the battle, prevented the accumulation of a larger dominant tank force. If a month’s production of fighting vehicles were lost in three to four months time, little growth and operational impact occurred. By 1943, the Germans were faced with superior numbers of all types on three strategic fronts. A mere fourteen battalions of heavy tanks and two more of heavy tank destroyers were not likely going to turn the tide unless they could somehow be concentrated. Such was never achieved. In the meantime, two German field armies had surrendered in the field by May 1943.

On the operational level, the heavy fighting vehicles could inflict serious blows upon their opponents. Their weaknesses in automotive range and mechanical endurance worked against them, and the requirements for a day of maintenance for every three of operations were seldom permitted in the huge battles that raged on the Russian steppes and in the Norman countryside. In terms of logistic support, a superior fighting vehicle could prove effective in battle only as long as its components held up to battle damage of all sorts inflicted by enemy troops, tanks, minefields, and artillery. In this aspect, the critical failure of German logistical support proved consistently decisive. Despite the heralded accomplishments of the maintenance workshops and personnel, the lack of sufficient spare parts and components quickly reduced the numbers of operating vehicles of a company or battalion to a mere shadow of the same in just a few days. German manufacturers preferred that battle-damaged tanks be retrograded to Germany for rebuild rather than spreading spares over the various armies in the field. Spare parts to them represented reduced production of new vehicles. However, for most of the war the fronts remained distant from the factories and German transportation difficulties increased throughout the war.

The shortages of fuel inevitably dogged the heavy fighting vehicles, especially when they had to perform road marches to enter the battles for which they were assigned. The very notion that Tiger tanks might have been assigned to Rommel’s commands in Africa with such a short radius of action and poor mechanical reliability simply boggles the mind. Under persistent fuel shortages, the quality of spare engines sent to the fronts began to decline as well, as regulations prevented new engines being run-in because static test machines were considered a proper economy.

In the end, the gun-armor race may have sidetracked critical mobility concerns of the commanders and troops in the field. Speer’s November 1944 report from a trip to Italy (November 19–25) showed that the troops were willing to give up armor and weight in order to gain maneuverability and mobility:

On the Southwest Front, opinions are in favor of the Sherman tank and its cross-country ability. The Sherman tank climbs mountains that our Panzer crews consider impassable. This is accomplished by the especially powerful engine in the Sherman in comparison to its weight. Also, according to reports from the 26th Panzer Division, the terrain-crossing ability on level ground (in the Po valley) is completely superior to our Panzers. The Sherman tanks drive freely cross-country, while our Panzers must remain on trails and narrow roads and therefore are very restricted in their ability to fight.

All Panzer crews want to receive lighter Panzers, which are more maneuverable, possess increased ability to cross terrain, and guarantee the necessary combat power just with a superior gun. This desire by the troops corresponds with conditions that will develop in the future as a result of the drop in production capacity and of the fact that, because of a shortage of chrome, sufficient armor plate can’t be produced to meet the increased production plans. Therefore, either the number of Panzers produced must be reduced or it will be necessary to reduce the thickness of the armor plate. In that case, the troops will unequivocally ask for a reduction of the armor thickness in order to increase the total number of Panzers produced.6

In the end, the nature of World War II suggests that numbers did count, provided some minimum level of quality could be delivered.

Experimentation by most major armies in the immediate aftermath of World War I confirmed the tank as a supporting arm for the infantry and the armored car remained useful for colonial security and the support of cavalry operations. However, the armies overcame limitations of the early vehicles thanks to a series of technical improvements in engines, suspension systems, and drive trains elaborated mostly in the 1930s. Advances in the civilian automotive and aircraft industries proved essential and military engineers provided key applications and adaptations for a new generation of armored fighting vehicles.

Visionaries in France, Great Britain, and Germany provided key theories of a future operational doctrine before any improved vehicles reached the drawing board. Although many people conceived of armored warfare as a translated sea battle with landships dueling for battlefield supremacy, a better doctrine emphasizing combined arms began to emerge in the late 1930s. Fire and movement became effective tactics and large-scale maneuvers an operational doctrine with a balanced force of all arms, mechanized, or motorized to permit continuous movement and mounted combat. In addition to fielding tank units and mechanizing the traditional arms of infantry, artillery (field, anti-aircraft, and anti-tank), cavalry, engineers, and services, the incorporation of modern communications into the new armored formations became a key element. Armored commanders needed effective voice radios and message services to send and receive intelligence, request air and artillery support, report their situation, and give their subordinates new maneuvers and missions as the fluid situations of mounted combat occurred. The extent to which these vital communications functions took root in various national armies determined their success at the outset. French and British armor remained hopelessly outmaneuvered in 1940 by the German Panzer units, which extended radio communications down to the individual tank and reconnaissance vehicle. In 1941, it became the turn of the Red Army’s tank forces to face the same contrast, with their radio issue initially extending only down to company commanders. The Russians had also made a temporary error of abandoning the combined arms force and returning the tank units to the piecemeal support of infantry formations.

In the end, all the major armies fighting World War II in Europe adopted the best features of the Panzer Division and the qualitative edge of the German forces disappeared at the same time that the experience and organization of their opponents improved. No longer able to knock out a major opponent in a single campaign after 1940, the fate of the Third Reich was sealed, despite any array of miracle weapons it attempted to field.


The BMP-2 IFV first appeared in the late 1970s and may be regarded as a ‘product improved’ BMP-1. Many of the drawbacks of the BMP-1 were eliminated, the most obvious being the replacement of the BMP-1’s 73 mm low velocity gun by a more versatile and effective 30 mm cannon and the relocation of the commander from a position behind the driver to the turret.

ATGW launchers may be mounted over the turret and an anti-tank grenade launcher is often carried. The rather cramped interior remains but the number of troops carried is reduced to seven (plus the commander who normally dismounts with the troops). The BMP-2 has been produced in large numbers; the Russian Army alone is estimated to have received some 20,000 vehicles so the type remains one of the Eastern Bloc’s most important combat vehicles numerically. Licence production continues in the former Czechoslovakia (BVP-2) and in India, where the BMP-2 is known as the Sarath. Essentially similar vehicles have been produced in Bulgaria (BMP-30) from where many were exported to Iraq.

The BMP-2 carries over the same general lines as the BMP-1 and is thus a low, agile, reliable and serviceable vehicle with adequate engine power for most all-terrain missions, especially with late production vehicles which have several improvements over earlier models such as improved fire control, extra armour in places and layout alterations.

A command version exists and mine ploughs may be fitted to most vehicles. Indian Sarath variants include an armoured ambulance, an armoured engineering vehicle and a bridging reconnaissance vehicle.

Modernization Package

Installation of the AG-17 automatic grenade launcher.

Replacement of the BPK-2-42 gunner’s sight fitted with an IR searchlight by the BPK-3-42 sight provided with a laser searchlight (increase in the range of gunner’s night vision from 800 to 1,300 meters) or by the BPM-M sight equipped with a thermal imaging module (2 to 2.5-fold increase in the range of gunner’s night vision).

Installation of the TKN-AI commander’s vision device fitted with laser active-impulse illumination in lieu of the TKN-3B commander’s vision device (increase in the target detection range and range finding measurement within 200 and 3,000 m with an accuracy of up to 20 m).

Replacement of the TVNE-1PA (TVNE- 1B) driver’s night vision device by the PVM multipurpose device (provision for day and night surveillance).

Modernization of the fire control system (provision for use of various antitank weapons and ATGM firing in poor visibility conditions both by day and night).

Installation of additional armor plating (ensured protection of the side armor plates against the 12.7mm B- 32 armor-piercing bullet hitting the armor at any angle). Additional updating of the BMP-1 and BMP-2 vehicles is also possible, including:

– installation of antimine armor plates under the bottom of the hull, attachment of the driver’s and commander’s seats to the hull side, installation of the Inei firefighting system in the personnel compartment and additional armored flaps (to increase armor protection of the vehicle sides), mounting of the KBM-2 air conditioner and a modernized active-passive gunner’s sight;

– replacement of the standard engine by the 370 hp UTD-23 turbocharged diesel with appropriate refit of the transmission.


Former Soviet Union

BMP-2 obr. 1980 – Initial production model.

BMP-2 obr. 1984 – Improved version with “kovriki” armour on turret front.

BMP-2 obr. 1986 – Late-production model with new BPK-2-42 sight instead of the BPK-1-42.

BMP-2D (D stands for desantnaya – assault) – Fitted with additional spaced type steel appliqué armour on the hull sides, under the driver’s and commander’s stations, and 6 mm thick appliqué armour on the turret. Due to the added weight, the vehicle is no longer amphibious. It also has provision for mounting a mine clearing system under the nose of the vehicle. In service since 1982, it saw service during Soviet war in Afghanistan. During that conflict, western observers saw the vehicle for the first time and gave it a designation BMP-2E.

BMP-2K (K stands for komandirskaya – command) – Command variant fitted with two whip antennas mounted on the rear of the hull, one behind the turret and one on the right-hand side of the rear of the vehicle, one IFF antenna (pin stick) on the left-hand side of the rear of the vehicle and a support for a telescopic mast in the front of the IFF antenna. The firing port equipped with the periscope was removed from either side of the vehicle. The antennae on the turret was removed. The radio equipment consists ether of the R-123M and R-130M radio sets, or the more modern R-173, R-126 and R-10. The crew consists of six men.

BMP-2M – This is the general designator for upgraded (modernizirovannyj) versions.

BMP-2M “Berezhok” – This version from KBP has an additional AG-30 grenade launcher, 2+2 launchers for ATGM 9M133 “Kornet” and new day/night sights as found on the BMD-4. This upgrade was selected by Algeria, and Russia will upgrade several hundred vehicles.

The upgrade package from Kurganmashzavod consists of the UTD-23 400 hp (294 kW) turbocharged engine, BPK-3-42 and TKN-AI sights, additional passive armour, an AG-17 “Plamya” grenade launcher and a KBM-2 air conditioning unit. Furthermore, the upgraded vehicle will have an improved suspension with road wheels of higher load carrying capacity, enhanced-hardness torsion bars, power-consuming shock absorbers and tracks with rubber pad shoes. The upgrade package was ready in 2008.

BMO-1 (boyevaya mashina ognemyotchikov) – Transport vehicle for a flamethrower squad armed with 30 RPO-A “Shmel” 93 mm napalm rocket launchers. It is equipped with storage racks and a dummy turret. The crew consists of seven soldiers. It entered service in 2001.

Former Czechoslovakia

BVP-2 (bojové vozidlo pěchoty) – Czechoslovak produced version of BMP-2.

BVP-2V or VR 1p (vozidlo velitele roty) – Company commander’s vehicle with tent, telescopic mast and radiosets RF 1325 (x 2), IPRS 32, RF 1301 and NS 2480D.

VPV (VPV stands for vyprošťovací pásové vozidlo) – BVP-2 conversion into an ARV developed at the ZTS Martin Research and Development Institute and production commenced at the ZTS Martin plant (which is now in Slovakia) in 1984. It is equipped with a powered crane with 5 tonnes capacity, heavy winch, wider troop compartment etc. Hatches on top of the turret and the troop compartment were removed. The vehicle is divided into four compartments: engine, commander’s, driver’s and repair/cargo. The crew consists of a commander/crane operator, driver/welder/slinger and a logistician/mechanic. The vehicle is armed with a pintle-mounted 7.62 mm PKT light machine gun. A small number of those vehicles was also based on BVP-1.


BMP-2 “Sarath” (“Chariot of Victory”), also known as BMP-II – Indian licence-produced variant of the BMP-2,[18] built by Ordnance Factory Medak. The first vehicle, assembled from components supplied by KBP, was ready in 1987. By 1999, about 90% of the complete vehicle and its associated systems were being produced in India. It was estimated that, by 2007, 1,250 vehicles had been built. India has also developed the following versions of the “Sarath”:

BMP-2 Light Tank – DRDO developed light tank on BMP-2 Chassis DRDO light tank.

BMP-2K “Sarath” – Command vehicle, similar to the Soviet/Russian version.

Armoured Ambulance – This version retains the turret but without the gun or smoke grenade launchers. The troop compartment has been modified to carry four stretchers.

Armoured Vehicle Tracked Light Repair – Armoured recovery vehicle, fitted with a light hydraulic crane.

Armoured Amphibious Dozer (AAD) – Turret-less combat engineer vehicle, fitted with a folding dozer blade at the rear, mine ploughs, a main winch with a capacity of 8,000 kg and a rocket-propelled earth anchor for self-recovery.

Armoured Engineer Reconnaissance Vehicle (AERV) – This version has no gun and is fitted with specialised equipment, including an echo-sounder, a water current metre, a laser range finder and GPS. On the left rear of the hull, a marking system with 40 rods is fitted.

NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle (NBCRV) – For detection of nuclear, biological and chemical contamination. The NBCRV was developed by DRDO and VRDE and has been ordered by the Indian army.

Carrier Mortar Tracked Vehicle – This turret-less version has an 81 mm mortar mounted in the modified troop compartment. The mortar is fired through an opening in the hull roof that has two hinged doors. It has a max. range of 5,000 m and a normal rate of fire of 6–8 rds/min. There is also a longe-range version of the mortar. The vehicle carries 108 mortar rounds and is also fitted with a 7.62 mm machine gun with 2,350 rounds. Crew: 2+4. The first prototype was completed in 1997.

NAMICA (Nag Missile Carrier) – part of the Nag anti-tank missile system. The Nag (snake) missile is launched from a retractable armoured launcher that contains four launch tubes and the guidance package. “Nag” is a fire-and-forget top-attack ATGM with a tandem-HEAT warhead and a range of at least 4 km.

Akash – Air-defence missile system that is based on a modified “Sarath” chassis with 7 road wheels. On top of the hull there’s a launcher for three SAMs with a range of 27 km and semi-active homing guidance.

Rajendra – This is a multifunctional 3-D phased radar (MUFAR), associated with the “Akash” system. It is also based on the stretched chassis.

BMP-2 UGV “Muntra” – unmanned reconnaissance vehicle, “S” version is fitted with equipment used to detect nuclear, biological and chemical contamination while the “M” version is designed to detect mines.

105 mm Self-Propelled Gun – This is OFB’s mechanized version of the Indian Light Field Gun (EQPT 105/37 LFG E2) with 42 rounds stowed. The gun is mounted in a lightly armoured turret. The 105 mm SPG was shown for the first time in public in February 2010 during DEFEXPO-2010 in New Delhi and is planned to replace the FV433 Abbot SPG in the Indian army.


BMP-2 upgrade designed by Nimda fitting it with new power unit and automatic transmission which improves both mobility and reliability.


BWP-2 – Polish designation for BMP-2 and BMP-2D.


BMP-2MD – Finnish modernisation of the BMP-2, which includes thermal camouflage, thermal sights, anti-aircraft sight and new day/night optics for the gunner and commander, heated cabin and seats, new external storage boxes functioning also as spaced armour and new radio and communications systems.


Canal Defence Light [CDL]

The Grant CDL (Canal Defence Light) was a special vehicle mounting a turret in which was located a powerful searchlight that was supposed to dazzle an enemy during night operations or illuminate targets at night.

The device known under the cover name Canal Defence Light was one weapons of World War II that was destined hardly ever to be used. In essence it was a simple idea, in which the normal gun turret of a tank was replaced with another housing an intense light to illuminate battlefields at night. All manner of tactical ploys were advocated for its use, ranging from simply blinding an enemy to providing general target illumination.

The idea of mounting powerful searchlights on tanks was first mooted during the mid-1930s by a group of interested civilians who ’sold’ the idea to the War Office in 1937. The War Office carried out a series of development trials under conditions of great secrecy, and by late 1939 a turret was ready for production. The secrecy continued with the project being known as the Canal Defence Light, or CDL. The first turrets produced were for the Matilda II infantry tank, and all that the fitting of a CDL involved was the removal of the normal turret and its replacement by a new one, though changes had to be made to the Matilda’s electrical systems as well, In the turret the searchlight was positioned behind a vertical slit in which was a shutter. In use the searchlight was switched on and the shutter was opened and closed very rapidly to provide a flickering impression to an observer in front. This flickering made the range of the CDL light difficult to determine, and anyway the light was so powerful that it was difficult to look into the beam even at quite long ranges.

Some 300 CDL turrets were ordered to convert Matildas to the CDL role, and one brigade of Matilda CDL vehicles was based in the UK and another in North Africa. The military planners were determined to use the impact of the CDL units to the full and constantly awaited the chance to use them to maximum effect. That chance somehow never came and the North African campaign was over before the CDLs could prove their worth. However the Normandy landings lay ahead, and it was planned to use the CDLs there. But at the same time it was felt that the CDL turrets should be placed on something rather more up-to-date than the slow and stately Matildas, so Grant tanks became the chosen carriers.

Thus the CDL was carried throughout the war but sparingly used. However, the idea certainly attracted attention. The US Army was most impressed by what it saw of the CDL at various demonstrations and decided to adopt the CDL for itself, and thus produced 355 CDL turrets for mounting on otherwise obsolete M3 Lee tanks. These were used to equip six tank battalions for special operations in Europe. The cover name T10 Shop Tractor was used for US CDL vehicles. The U.S. Army already had two battalions equipped with the CDL in June 1944 but never considered using them on D-Day. Instead the CDLs were used for the relatively unexciting task of providing ‘artificial moonlight’ to illuminate the crossings of the Rhine and Elbe in early 1945.

The US 738th Tank Battalion (spec) manned the CDL (Canal Defence Light). This was an M3 Lee/Grant chassis, mounting a modified turret containing a 13,000,000 candle power arc lamp reflected through a mechanical shutter. This weapon induced blindness and disorientation, and the flickering prevented the enemy from identifying its source and location.

The first use of the CDL was against German frogmen, who were attempting to destroy the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. The device worked as intended, and the frogmen were quickly rounded up.

The Churchill Canal Defence Light is much more difficult to write about since nobody, as far as we know, has yet seen a photograph of one. There is a stowage diagram in the Tank Museum archive plus an illustrated parts list and a sketch of one in the book Sutherland’s War but none are really good enough to work up a description from. However, these illustrations seem to indicate that the tanks were fitted with the earlier pattern air intake which suggests they were made quite early on. We know that the turret ring diameter of the Churchill was only 52in (1321mm) as against 54in (1372mm) of the Matilda and Grant, so the turrets weren’t directly interchangeable. And we also know that the thickness of frontal armour on the Churchill CDL turret was 85mm as against 65mm on the others. On the other hand the Churchill CDL turret was of very similar layout, even down to the Besa machine gun despite the fact that on the Churchill there would have been another Besa in the hull front. But there is no evidence, from the parts list illustration at any rate, of a dummy main gun being fitted.

The evidence suggests that there was only ever one regiment equipped with Churchill CDL tanks, and that, we think, was 152 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps (which had been converted from 11th Battalion, The King’s Regiment from Liverpool) in the 35th Army Tank Brigade, which became an element of the 79th Armoured Division. If it was configured along the same lines as other CDL regiments that would mean 54 CDL tanks split evenly between three squadrons along with 13 gun tanks and the usual reconnaissance, intercommunication and admin troops and their vehicles. According to a book on the Churchill tank, published back in 1971 by Chris Ellis and the late Peter Chamberlain, only prototypes were built and hulls earmarked for the remainder were later completed as armoured recovery vehicles. They also suggest that the reason for the abandonment of the Churchill CDL was on account of its slow speed, but in that respect it was the same as the Matilda, which was also adapted to the CDL role but a lot less well armoured. In any case the CDL was normally used in a static role at night, when speed wouldn’t matter.

Another peculiarity of the Churchill CDL was that it required a separate engine to drive the electrical generator, a Meadows four-cylinder unit. It was not driven off the main engine as on other types. The engine and generator were located within the Churchill’s fighting compartment, probably just behind the hull gunner’s seat, with the exhaust funnelled through the hull roof and the air intake for the radiator incorporated in the hull gunner’s hatch in the hull front. Quite how he got out in the event of an emergency is not clear.

A point has been raised, and quite legitimately, over the potential effectiveness of the CDL tank in anything but flat, level country. Wherever there are hills and irregular ground, and that must be pretty well everywhere, there will always be a problem finding a flat area for the tank to stand and project its beam. Even if that hurdle is overcome, the CDL’s effectiveness is limited if there are hills in the way to obstruct the light beam or deep declivities in the ground which it will miss altogether. Indeed, this may explain the reluctance to employ it in action.