Semovente 90/53

The Semovente 90/53 was a heavy Italian self-propelled gun and tank destroyer, used by the Italian and German Armies during World War II.

It was created by mounting a 90 mm Cannone da 90/53 anti-aircraft gun on top of an enlarged chassis of a M14/41 tank. Only 48 of these vehicles were produced, all in 1941. This low production was due to Italy’s limited industrial capability at the time, as well as high demand for the 90 mm gun for regular anti-aircraft duties.

The Semovente 90/53 was primarily developed in response to demands by Italian forces on the Eastern Front for a vehicle-mounted anti-tank weapon that could take on Soviet T-34 and KV tanks. Italian armored forces on the Eastern Front were equipped only with the L6/40 tank and Semovente 47/32 self-propelled gun; neither of these had the firepower to cope with the Soviet medium and heavy tanks. However, no Semovente 90/53 were ever sent to the Eastern Front.

The major drawback of the Semovente 90/53, as with many self-propelled gun types of World War II, was the open top and rear of the gun compartment, which left the gun crew exposed to shrapnel and small arms fire. In addition, the Semovente 90/53 had little or no armor in most areas. Because these vehicles were designed to operate far enough away from enemy vehicles to not be subject to incoming fire, this was initially not considered a problem. The small ammunition capacity of the vehicle was also a problem; only six rounds could be carried. This necessitated the creation of special ammunition carriers out of Fiat L6/40 tanks, one accompanying each Semovente 90/53 in the field. The L6 ammunition carrier itself carried 26 rounds along with an additional 40 rounds in a towed trailer. It fired Effetto Pronto, or HEAT rounds, which could pierce 70 mm armor plating at a range of 2,200 meters.

None were ever sent to the Russian Front. In the North African Campaign, the Semovente 90/53 proved to be an effective weapon and its long range was well suited to the flat and open desert terrain. 24 Semovente 90/53s saw service against the Allies in the 10° Ragruppamento Semoventi, which was stationed in Sicily during the Allied invasion in 1943. Following the surrender of Italy in September 1943, the few surviving Semovente 90/53 were seized by the German Army, but were of little value in the mountainous terrain of Northern Italy where they operated. As a result, most finished their careers as long-range artillery.




Directly evolved from the Carro Armato 8ton of 1935 vintage and of similar dimensions, with the same diesel engine and 37mm gun. It differed in having superior sprung bogie suspension, the 37mm gun remaining in the superstructure. Impetus for its adoption came after early operations by Italian-equipped Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 had shown up the inadequacy of the little CV 35 light tanks. A redesign of the Carro Armato 8ton prototype was ordered, Ansaldo and Fiat being asked to build 100 of the new vehicles under the designation Carro Armato M11(8T). First deliveries were made in early 1939 and were completed by 1940. The M 11/39 was of riveted construction with rear engine, front drive, side access doors, and the manually operated turret was offset to the left. There was a stowage box formed within the hull at the rear. Owing to its very light armour and small size the M 11/39 was obsolescent by the lime it went into action in Libya in 1940.

Many vehicles were swiftly knocked out and the type was withdrawn from service early in 1941. 11tons; crew 3; 37mm gun plus 2 MG; armour 6-30 mm; engine (diesel V8) 105hp; 21mph; 15.5ft x 7.08ft x 7.33ft. Other users: Few captured and used temporarily by Australian forces in the Western Desert, early 1941.

M11/39s in Compass

A handful of surviving M11s were used at Tobruk – a brisk Italian counterattack there being led by a few M11s. There were 9 M11s in running order inside the fortress, forming what was left of the 1st Battalion, 4th Tank Regiment, under Capt. V. La Rosa. Most officers of the Battalion were killed or wounded in action. An M11 platoon instead was employed in the Derna sector, January 1941, against the advancing Australians of Robertson’s brigade. According to the Australian Official History the tanks played practically no role in the battle as their crews were put out of combat by sniping fire while they were standing outside their tanks.

Additionally, my understanding of the organisation of the two M11/39 battalions in Nth Africa is three companies of two platoons of 5 tanks each and a platoon commanders tank and a battalion HQ company of 2 tanks making 35 tanks in each battalion. The 24 tanks in East Africa were two coys of 11 tanks and an HQ coy of two tanks. At the start of Libyan campaign, the Italian army have on hand a lot of L battalion and only two M11/39 battalions. This two battalion were: 1st and 2nd armoured battalion M 11/39 of 32. o Reggimento Fanteria Carrista of 132. a Ariete Armoured Division. They have a theoretical composition of 37 tanks (each) subdivided in two companies of 13 tank each. An Hq company with 10 tanks and a single Hq tank. For the Sidi Barrani offensive the Italian HQ grouped this two armoured battalion with other L battalion to form two provisional “ad hoc” “Raggruppamenti carristi” with this composition: 1. o Raggruppamento carristi with battaglioni carri L 21. o, 62. o and 63. o and 1. o battaglione carri M11/39 2. o Raggruppamento carristi with battaglioni carri L 9. o, 20. o and 61. o and 2. o battaglione carri M11/39 The 2. o battaglione carri M11/39 and the 60. o battaglione carri L 3/35 give, a company each to “Raggruppamento Maletti” to form a provisional tank battalion. After the Sidi Barrani offensive 23 M11/39 tank went to the divisional repair station for repair. At the start of December in Marsah Lucch the Italian HQ start to group some tank battalion to for a provisional armoured brigade. This one grouped: 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39, 3. o battaglione carri m 13/40, 21. o e 60. o battaglione carri L and some Bersaglieri and artillery units.

At the start of Compass offensive, the 2nd battalion M 11/39 (with only 22 tank) was attached to “Raggruppamento Maletti”. The unit was entirely destroyed between December/9/1940 and January/5/1941 1941. The 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39 with only 5 tanks was detached to Ain el Gazala airport. All its “out” tanks went to Tobruk for repair. With the loss of Tobruck all these tanks were lost. After some days also the remnants of 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39 were lost. I believe 322a Compagnia carri M11 had some in service in AOI until May 1941. More or less.

Africa Orientale Italiana

The Italian tanks at Agordat were L3 tankettes and a small number of M11/39s (there were 24 M11/39s in all in East Africa in June 1940). The tanks clashed frontally, with predictable results.

The last operational mention of M11 tanks in Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI, Italian East Africa) I know about is the battle of Agordat, January 1941. I have seen a photo of a relinquished M11 “in Massawa” (so reads the caption): Massawa fell in April 1941. I am unsure, though, whether M11s took actually part in some fighting near Massawa or elsewhere after Agordat. – For the defense of Massaua, only 2x L3 tankettes of 1a Compagnia were available (not sure they had any useful role!); they had recently been sent from Asmara, probably after repairs.  No mention of M11/39 at Massaua.  But it could be that some damaged M11 had been afterwards transported to Massawa by the Allies and photographed there. –

There were many small scale engagements involving the M11/39 of 322e Comp., but I was thinking of its participation in the Raggruppamento motorizzato “Buonamico” (a hodge-podge of small motorized units commanded by Colonel Giuseppe Buonamico), and then with the 25th Colonial Division late in the AOI campaign.

In late April 1941, General Gazzera ordered a diversionary attack towards Adama.  322a Comp. was part of this, with 10x M11/39, but the advance was stopped short.  The column was exposed to air attacks, but apparently the tanks saw no serious action there. At the Bubissa river (11 May 1941), the M11 made a successful counterattack though (see Gazzera, p. 128). And later (19 May), near the Billate river, the M. 11 (reduced to 5) were involved in a fight against South-African troops.  25th Col. Division commander, Colonel De Cicco, was killed while riding upfront on a M. 11 (along with the crew); he was awarded posthumously a “Medaglia d’oro alla valor militare” (Gazzera, p. 103; Le operazioni in AO, II, p. 401). 322a Comp. disappeared at Soddu (22 may), along with the remains of 25th Col. Div.

Some M11s were used in the Battles of the Lakes, but I believe 10-12 were used along with some L3s and armoured cars. The South African Official history has quite a bit of information concerning operations in this area. HQ coy it should be two tanks making 35 tanks per M11 battalion a total of 70 tanks in Libya and 24 tanks in IEA and 6 left back in Italy which I gather were sent to the Adriatic some time later in the war. Italian and German OH’s clearly state 74x M11/39 sent to Libya and 24 to East Africa. Try again. Here’s some more information on the AOI M11/39’s that might be of interest:

24 were present at start of campaign along with 36-39 tankettes 10 were lost at Agordat (1 medium tank damaged /destroyed Bubissa hill after being hit by artillery fire May 1941 3 medium tanks captured at Colito 19 May 1941 6 medium tanks plus 4 tankettes captured at Soddu 22 May 1941 additionally 9 tankettes were captured at Dadaba 13 May 1941.

Download British 1943 Report on M11/39

Danzig 1939

Soldiers of the SS-Heimwehr Danzig round up “undesirables” in the free city of Danzig. The SS had clandestinely sent troops into Danzig before the invasion ready to seize key objectives once war was declared.


Soldiers of SS Heimwehr Danzig, an SS unit recruited in Danzig, take cover behind an ADGZ armored car during an attack on Polish troops in a post office. SS Heimwehr Danzig was incorporated into the 3rd SS Totenkopf Division after the Poland campaign.

The Battle for the Polish Post Office in Danzig

On 19th December 1921, Poland received the former Danzig Garrison Sick-bay on the Heveliusplatz from the International Arbitration Commission for use on postal duties. The Polish Post Office was called “Gdansk 1” from 1st August 1926. The former military hospital had already been robustly built, but the Poles began to strengthen and extend the building in the 1930s. 38 special ex-service reserve officers of the Polish Army were made postal officials. They were enlisted by Ridz-Smigly for defence of the Post Office until the promised relief by Polish cavalry.

A group of a hundred VGAD, which was formed from SA men, joined the 1st half platoon of the 3rd platoon of the 13th Coy., SS-Heimwehr Danzig in the battle for the Post Office under Hauptmann der Schutzpolizei Tornbaum, as well as the barracked police of the 2nd Police Precinct.

The members of SS-Heimwehr received their order into action in the early morning hours. A swift, surprise seizure of the Post Office by the police units failed due to the unexpected readiness of the Polish postal officials, and the German attackers were left around 20 metres in front of the building under well-planned defensive fire. Both light infantry guns of SS-Heimwehr were only partially used, since they would have endangered the population. The SS men were therefore used as infantry for the short term. Further attempts to storm the Post Office quickly and without losses failed due to the dogged defence by the Poles. In contrast to the Post Office, the other Polish quarters in Danzig were occupied by the afternoon. The SS-Heimwehr Danzig was however not involved.

Place; Found:

  1. Main railway station a light MG
  2. Polish railway post office a MG, four rifles, 18 pistols, and two cases of hand grenades
  3. Polish railway office 45 pistols
  4. Polish customs post 15 rifles
  5. Diplomatic agency a light MG, five rifles, four pistols
  6. Polish scout hall a machine gun
  7. Polish living quarters some rifles
  8. Polish student hostel some rifles
  9. Polish grammar school some rifles

A new attack was planned for 1700 hrs. One of the two Minenwerfers which had been set up on the Westerplatte was taken from there and brought to the Post Office. This was to shell the brick building until it was ripe for the storming. After the guns had together shot a large hole in the wall, the Poles retreated to the cellars. When the Fire Brigade finally managed to pump gas into the cellar and ignite it, the confused defending Poles gave up. The well-built Post Office came in useful while the German soldiers and police had to move around in the street without cover. At 1830 hrs, the swastika flag was raised. The battle was over. After the end of the battle for the Post Office, further weapons were found: 3 light machine guns with 44 full and 13 empty rounds, 30 army pistols, 1 drum revolver, 1 sack of infantry and pistol ammunition and 150 hand grenades. (Source: Auswärtiges Amt. Weißbuch Nr. 2/1939/ Dokumente zur Vorgeschichte des Krieges.)

The then SS Officer Anton Winter experienced the battle for the Polish Post Office: “I experienced the outbreak of war on 1st September 1939 as a member of the 3rd platoon of the 13/SS-Heimwehr Danzig. Our orders were to immediately go to the Bischofsberg above Danzig. The infantry gun company consisted at the time of three platoons each of two infantry guns, called “gypsy artillery”. The guns of the 1st and 2nd platoons were rubber-tyred so as to be suitable for motorised deployment. Because of the lack of purpose-built artillery tractors they could only be pulled by the Opel Blitz truck which was present. Our 3rd platoon had only iron-wheeled guns, for horses to pull, but we had no horses, so we had to move the guns ourselves. Later we loaded our artillery into requisitioned civilian vehicles. In our case it was a margarine factory truck. Apart from the infantry guns we received another two Minenwerfers from World War I. The manpower stayed the same and since we were not trained in these heavy Minenwerfers, we had serious difficulties in using them later. The calibre of this mortar was, as I recall, 150 mm (6-inches)[1]. Our platoon was transferred to the Danzig mess hall from Bischofsberg shortly before 1st September 1939. From here we were ordered, most nights, to guard the harbour area of the new shipping route with our “margarine gun”. On 31st August 1939 the units of the Heimwehr were put on stand-by. Only we, the 3rd platoon of the 13th company, remained in the mess hall for the time being, for defence and possible deployment in the city. In the early morning hours of the 1st September 1939 we were wakened by a muffled rumbling. The shelling of the Westerplatte had begun. We listened until our platoon leader came to us with the order into action. We crawled to our gun in the truck and drove to the Polish Post Office, where we moved our gun into an open firing position. The distance to the Post Office was about 60 metres. Despite the heavy rifle and machine gun fire against us, we fired shell after shell directly on and into the building. At every shot from the cobbled street, however, our gun recoiled out of position, which definitely made our shooting more difficult. We had to take the cobbles up, during which our comrade Taynor was killed by a shot to the head, and our platoon leader was seriously injured on the arm. With the help of an armoured scout car from the police, we tried to storm the Post Office again, but failed, and we had further losses. It was just impossible to get through the strong wall and bars and take the building. After the attack with the armoured scout car had also failed, there was a pause in the battle. Even shelling with the recently-arrived heavy 15mm howitzer of the Wehrmacht could not bring the defenders to surrender. The Poles defended their Post Office with extraordinary bravery, even in the belief that they would be relieved by Polish cavalry, which was expecting to be in Berlin in seven days. Only in the late afternoon did we succeed, under heavy defensive fire, in getting flammable material into the rooms and cellar, igniting it and thus smoking out the defenders. Only then did they give up, and we pulled our gun back to the mess hall through a mass audience of people drawn up in a row. In the evening our gun company was ordered to see Generalmajor Eberhardt, who wanted to praise us for our “selfless action against the Polish Post Office”. On the next day, our company was taken off and deployed in the battle for the Westerplatte.”

Kurt Boldt from Danzig lived near the Polish Post Office in 1939: “… When SS-Rottenfiihrer Taynor fell with a head wound, I was stood about 60 to 80 metres away and observed how a comrade, with complete disregard for his own life, moved the body to the shelter of the houses, on the corner of Heveliusplatz…” The Polish postal officials, as they wore no military uniforms, were tried and executed in October 1939 as guerrillas.

Small quantity of ADGZ armoured cars was used by Germans. The most familiar example is a combat record of two ADGZ’s in Danzig, early 1939. Both of them organisationally belonged to a local “Heimwehr” and took part in assaulting the Polish post office in the city. It’s important however that instead of their original Austrian armament consisting of the 20mm Tankgewehr M35 and Schwarzlose M07/12 MMG’s the Germans re-armed their ADGZ’s with MG 34’s and reduced the vehicle crew to four crewmen (the vehicle was designed to accommodate a crew of six).

The 2 ADGZ used in Danzig where in fact cars of a police unit (together with 2 old Erhardt armoured cars), despite being marked with SS runes and a skull. They where supporting the Heimwehr troops. It had been planned to storm the Polish post office with Police men of the local German police, whose office was in a side floor of exactly that building. But both police and Heimwehr where not able to get into the main building for several hours. They succeeded only after the ADGZ held down the Polish defenders and fuel was pumped into the building and ignited.

The Polish post office in Danzig had successfully resisted the first German assaults and the 30 or so Poles had retreated to the cellar, where they refused to surrender. Rather than suffer more casualties, the Germans ordered the Danzig Fire Brigade to pump domestic gas into the cellar. The asphyxiated Poles duly gave themselves up.

The Poles were later shot for wearing civilian clothing whilst bearing arms. The Danzig firemen were presumably not shot for the more serious offence of using gas while in civilian uniform.

General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt

Kampfgruppe Eberhardt 1939

I think it was officially known as Brigade Eberhardt. It later became the core of 60th Motorised Infantry Division.

There is a book entitled something like “Heimwehr Danzig” about the SS contribution beside Brigade Eberhardt in Danzig in 1939.

The OB I have for Brigade Eberhardt comes from a Polish book on the fighting along the seacoast during the German invasion in September 1939. It is the only source I have ever found that gives an OB for the brigade. It is as follows:

Police Brigade Eberhardt: 1st and 2nd Police Regiments

SS Heimwehr Danzig Infantry Battalion

Battalion Hacker (a Grenzwacht battalion)

Danzig Artillery Battalion

Eberhardt Cavalry Squadron

Eberhardt Construction Engineer Battalion

The book Sid mentioned is a history of the SS Heimwehr Danzig Battalion during the early days of the campaign, but that’s about it. There is nothing about the rest of the brigade in the book.

” Die Geschichte der SS Heimwehr Danzig” by Rolf Michaelis


In June 1939, the III./SS-Totenkopf-Standarte was redesignated as the “SS-Heimwehr Danzig”.

Headquarters SS-Heimwehr Danzig — Feldpostnummer 24 611

— Signal Plt.

— Pioneer Plt.

— Medical Plt.

— Motor Transport Company (motorized) [3 truck Plt.]

1st Infantry Company — Feldpostnummer 24 293 [4 infantry Plt.]

2nd Infantry Company — Feldpostnummer 31 292 [4 infantry Plt.]

3rd Infantry Company — Feldpostnummer 31 700 [4 infantry Plt.]

4th Machine-Gun Company — Feldpostnummer 32 304 [3 MG Plt.; 1 mortar plt.]

13th Infantry Gun Company — Feldpostnummer 33 475 [2 lt IG Plattons w/ 4 lt IG; 1 mixed plt. (2 lt IG + 2 mortars)]

14th Anti-Tank Company — Feldpostnummer 33 832 [4 Plt. w/ 3 ATG]

15th Anti-Tank Company — Feldpostnummer 34 799 [4 Plt. w/ 3 ATG]

The SS-Heimwehr Danzig was an infantry (non-motorized) battalion-sized unit. It certainly did NOT have an “Panzer-Nachrichten” units.

Gemischter Verband Danzig (aka Brigade Eberhardt) [3. Armee]

Danziger Infanterie-Regiment 1 (Landespolizei) (I. – III.)

Danziger Infanterie-Regiment 2 (Landespolizei) (I. – III.)

Danziger leichte Artillerie-Abteilung

Grenzabschnitt Hacker (3 cos.)

Arbeitsdienstgruppe Eberhardt (6 cos.)

Aufklaerungs-Kompanie Eberhardt

Brigade NetzeIII. Armeekorps, 4. AOK]

2x Grenzwachtabschnitt (#’s unknown) of Grenzwachtabschnitt 2

It is impossible to compile a complete accurate composition of all companies and individual weapons, as many records have been destroyed. The above is a compendium of many sources, not all original, and some conflicting.

Polizei-Panzerkampfwagen ADGZ

The Steyr ADGZ was originally developed as a heavy armored car for the Austrian army (its designation was “M35 Mittlere Panzerwagen”) from 1934 and delivered from 1935-37. Series production was under consideration, but the events of 1938 precluded the completion of this possibility. In 1941, Steyr received an order from the Reichsfuhrer-SS to complete a further 25 new ADGZ for the SS. These were delivered during 1942. An interesting feature of this vehicle was that there was no “rear:” either end was capable of driving the unit.

The original fourteen” ADGZ served with police detachments in Danzig in September 1939. The ADGZ delivered in 1942 were used by the SS to fight partisans in the East. After the invasion of the USSR a few ADGZ armored cars were rearmed with turrets from the Soviet T-26 model 1933 light tank.

Verstärkter Grenzaufsichtsdienst (VGAD, Reinforced Border Surveillance Service)

A very little known unit deriving from the SA was the Verstärkter Grenzaufsichtsdienst (VGAD, Reinforced Border Surveillance Service) created in 1939 at Danzig (today Gdansk in Poland) from the SA Brigade VI. As the title implies, the VGAD was intended as a paramilitary unit for patrolling the frontiers around the Free City of Danzig and as an extra defence against the Poles. Members of the VGAD usually wore standard German army uniform with a black collar displaying the SA collar patch and a sleeve title reading Grenzwacht (Border Guard). During the invasion of Poland in September 1939 members of the VGAD fought as part of the Sonderverband Danzig (Special Detachment Danzig), also named Brigade Eberhardt after its commanding officer Generalmajor Friedrich Eberhardt. This unit is principally remembered for capturing the central post office of Danzig after heavy fighting.

„Küstenschutz Danzig“

This unit was formed by Marine-SA (~naval SA) and Zollbeamte (customs officers).

Some 250 men formed two Coastal Artillery Batteries and one Harbour Barrier/Blockade Group.

„Küstenschutz Danzig“ was attached to „Gruppe Eberhardt“.

It seems as the „Küstenschutz Danzig“ was a kind of a naval version of the SS Heimwehr Danzig, each battery comprised four 88mm pieces.

The task of Küstenschutz Danzig was to make provisions for operation of SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN. They were also responsible for closing (blocking) the Danzig harbour, or unblocking it – depending on situation.

On 4th September 1939 one battery of Küstenschutz Danzig shelled Westerplatte.

in “Die Yacht” Jg, 1939 ist ein schönes Soldatenfoto mit Mützenband



Soviet MBT Design Overview

T-72, a classic of Soviet design. Noted small curved turret, steeply sloped chassis and turret surfaces, utilization of ERA tiles over tank surface, wide broadly spaced tracks and generally simple design which is quick and inexpensive to build.

The T-72 is an example of classic Soviet/Russian MBT design. The trademark feature of the T-72, as with many Soviet tanks, is the small rounded turret. These were made of cast armored steel until fairly recently. Though Western designers complain that the small turret size produces very cramped working conditions for the crew the design is effective in reducing target cross-section and increasing surface obliquity to incoming threats (curved surfaces are intrinsically of a high obliquity as they induce rotation of the threat on impact).

Modern Soviet/Russian turrets also include auto-loaders, an approach not taken by many Western armor designers. The auto-loader decreases the necessary crew members by one, reducing overall vehicle weight, and in theory increases the firing rate of the weapon. Jams however are more frequently and difficult to correct, and loading becomes very slow once the ready rounds are consumed. Because of the smaller turret size and auto-loader, available ready rounds are significantly reduced compared to Western designed vehicles. The Soviets originally did not use ammunition storage in a bustle rack attached to the turret with access doors and blow off panels to reduce crew injury in the event of a strike, as this acts to increase vehicle cross-section and makes a strike more likely. But due to too many incidences involving crew being killed by ammunition stored in the turret or vehicle chassis being set off as secondary explosions by threat overmatch penetration (i.e., ammo cooking-off), more modern Russian tanks have come to employ bustle rack ammunition stowage. The history of Soviet/Russian Armored vehicle development, and key characteristics of Soviet style MBTs, is reviewed.


Following World War I the major powers recognized the need to develop armored vehicles capable of mobility, firepower and protection (survivability). While England and France took the early initiative in designing armored vehicles, each other major power quickly copied their basic designs. Each would henceforth develop their own unique style of armored vehicle, evolving the process along their own design philosophy. By the 1930s both Germany and the USSR significantly outpaced the English and French development and took the forefront in armor design. In fact, through a secret pact, Germany and Russia were actually working together to develop innovative tank technologies, design concepts and battlefield tactics employing their newly developed weapons.

The initial armored vehicles designed by all of the major nations during the interwar period tended to be light and were designed with a focus on being able to support infantry. However these designs soon evolved into heavy infantry support vehicles, large enough and with sufficient armor to protect them against field guns and small arms fire. But these early ‘tanks’ lacked large weapons, preferring to integrate machine guns and small calibre cannon suitable for engaging infantry. Many of these weapons were mounted in turrets, or even multiple turrets, providing the ability to fire at infantry in many directions simultaneously. The vehicles were designed to breach the trenches that defined World War I and hence their design did not emphasize mobility or speed. The tanks were meant to accompany the infantry and so only need to move as quickly as infantry, and over ground infantry would advance over.

It was concluded that tanks would need to engage other tanks, just as aircraft were required be able to counter other aircraft. To optimize the tank in this new role is was determined that a single turret with the largest possible gun would prove most decisive. Therefore the ‘infantry support tank’ evolved into the true ‘combat tank’. Able to engage other armored vehicle and soft-skinned vehicles, the tanks maintained a heavy presence of machine guns, typically mounted in the turret and hull, to still meet the need to defeat opposing infantry.

Eventually these vehicles developed into the wide range of light, medium and heavy tanks that saw combat during World War II. Each was principally designed to engage and destroy other tanks and armored vehicles. Infantry ceased to be the main force factor on the battlefield. The tank battalions now held that honor. All of these tanks possessed reasonable firepower, which continued to increase in calibre and projectile velocity as the war progressed. Medium tanks had reasonable protection and reasonable mobility. Light tanks had high mobility but low protection, being designed to get a tank into the fight quickly, providing a tactical advantage. Heavy tanks had heavy protection and large calibre guns, but were slow and thereby more effective in defensive or long-range bombardment roles.

The Russians borrowed ideas from both the US and French tank designs. They were quick to employ the US developed Christie suspension system, which was superior to the then prevalent leaf spring approach. They also adopted the French notion of casting turrets, reducing cost and increasing productivity. Before WWII, and during the early stages of that war, turrets and hulls of most tanks tended to be fabricated from riveted plate, so casting also improved protection levels (rivets tended to fail when struck with a shell), and yet was inexpensive compared to the newly emerging field of welding.

The first extensively fabricated Soviet tank with a cast turret was the ubiquitous T-34 medium tank. Eventually, as welding processes were improved, as higher hardness steels were developed that could only be fabricated as flat plate, the advantage of cast rounded turrets was reduced, though the Russians tended to prefer this approach on many of their platforms until relatively modern times.

The JS-2 Heavy tank (left) and the KV-2 self-propelled gun (right). Both were well armored with heavy calibre weapons, but too slow to offer any operational tactical flexibility

In addition to the well-known T-34, the Soviets also developed a wide range of other highly effective tanks and armored vehicles throughout the war, including the heavy Joseph Stalin (JS or IS) series, heavily armored and powerful but lethargic anti-tank field guns, such as the KV-2, and lightly armored but mobile and well-armed Cavalry vehicles. There were also ‘tank killers’ which had the gun placed in the hull rather than on a rotating turret, which reduced tactical flexibility but also significantly reduced cost.

Despite the wide range of tank types explored during the war, the Russian experiences during WWII convinced them, as the war also convinced Western powers, that the optimal approach to tank design was a vehicle with good armor, a heavy gun, and effective mobility. This aligned with the medium tank approach rather than the under-armored light tank or the excessively cumbersome heavy tank. This realisation led the way to the development in the post-war period of the modern concept of the Main Battle Tank (MBT).

Soviet Main Battle Tanks

The first Soviet designed Main Battle Tank was the T-54/55. The first proto-type of this revolutionary vehicle was actually produced just at the closing of World War II and marked a significant leap in tank design. The overall tank appearance, and many of the progressive concepts introduced, continue to the core to Soviet MBTs still being produced to this day. The low profile of the T-54/55 series of tanks and the small rounded turret are distinctive Soviet design characteristic. With up to 100,000 of these vehicles built it has the status of being the most manufactured tank in history. Supplied in large numbers by the Soviets to their client states the vehicle proved its capabilities in numerous conflicts throughout the latter half of the 21st Century. Subsequently sold to non-Warsaw pact nations the T-54/55 currently remains in operation with armies of many third world nations to this day.

Equipped with a powerful 100 mm rifled gun, more powerful than other tanks of the time, gun stabilization was also introduced with the T-55 upgrade, further improving firing cycle time and accuracy. The hull and turret were well armored compared to other contemporary vehicles as well. The Turret was manufactured from approximately 8” (205 mm) of cast armored steel on the front and 5” (130 mm) on the sides, and the hull armor consists of 4” (100 mm) of steel angled at 60° in the frontal arc and 3” of steel (80 mm) on the sides at 0° obliquity. The vehicles were of a relatively simple and low cost design, while being tough and functionally effective.

This is another key characteristic of Russian design that evolved from the brutality of their experiences during WWII. Rather than make complex tanks which were slow and costly to build, as did the Germans, the Soviets recognized that most tanks covered minimal ground and had a short life expectancy once battle commenced. Therefore they put emphasis on designing tanks of which huge numbers could be produced quickly and inexpensively, relying on volume over sophistication to overwhelm an enemy. By maintaining a smaller sized vehicle with a small turret, the vehicle was also designed to offer as small of a target as possible to enemy tanks and anti-tank guns.

Keeping the vehicle relatively light compared to the Western vehicles also meant that mobility was kept high, both on the move and for transportation by rail or truck. The tracks are wide and spaced far apart, improving cross-country mobility by keeping the footprint (i.e., ground pressure exerted by the vehicle) low. These lighter MBTs could also pass over bridges which could not support the weight of heavier Western MBTs. Low overall vehicle weight is another key Soviet design characteristics that continued to be seen in subsequent and contemporary Soviet MBTs.

The T-54/T-55 performed well but had a number of negative features. The vehicles had a very cramped interior resulting from the effort to maintain a small silhouette. This compelled the Soviets to require smaller individuals as tank crewman. Another consequence of the cramped interior was this this limited the range of motion and speed at which the crewman could adjust controls and operate equipment. The most major consequence of this was restricting the rate at which ammunition could be reloaded. The ammunition was stored in the chassis and not protected, and so secondary detonations remained an issue. Oddly, the turret floor of the T-54 was not designed to rotate with the turret. As with the T-34, this forced the cramped crew to have to shuffle about as they rotated the turret. This had an impact on firing response time and accuracy. This however was corrected in the T-55 and all subsequent MBTs in which the turret basket floor is suspended from the turret so that the gunner and commander position remains synchronized with the turret orientation.

The T-55 primarily fired HEAT rounds to engage targets. At the time nations believed that the newly developed round would dominate the future battlefield. America even developed a 152 mm gun that could only fire HEAT rounds for one of its MBT variants. Both the Soviets and the British (Chobham armor) however developed ceramic armor systems, which performed very well against HEAT rounds compared to conventional armored steel. Therefore the quickly evolving kinetic energy based long-rod penetrators actually became the dominant anti-tank tank round. HEAT rounds do not require a high muzzle velocity but long-rod penetrators do. Therefore the Russians, as with the Western nations, had to abandon large bored low velocity guns and replaced them with high velocity guns, requiring stronger barrels and breach mechanism. The T-55 therefore also suffered from employing a barrel type and primary anti-tank round that were soon to become obsolete.

Despite the relative success of the T-55 platform, the introduction of this intimidating tank resulted in Western powers developing advanced MBTs of their own. The development of the American M60 MBT was a direct response to the appearance of the T-55. This in turn compelled the Soviets to continue developing their own technologies. The next major advancement in Soviet MBT tank technology was the T-62. The T-62 was essentially an evolution of the T-55, continuing to utilize many of the same components and systems. The main weapon calibre was increased from 100 mm to 115 mm. This was a smoothbore weapon, rather than rifled, and it is the first instance of a smoothbore barrel being used on a MBT. Despite the larger gun the rounded cast armored steel turret of the T-62 was actually smaller than that used on the T-55. Introduced into service in 1961, the vehicles continued to be manufactured until 1975.

The T-62 however was found to have a number of short comings, as identified during its deployment by Arab allies in the Yom-Kippur war with Israel. The vehicle was not able to perform adequately against its contemporary Western MBTs – though much of this in retrospect was probably due more so to the superior training of the Israel tank crewmen compared to their Arab counterparts than to the tank itself. Regardless, the T-62 was quickly further evolved into the more commonly employed T-64. Where the T-64 appeared similar to the T-62, it represented a significant change in Soviet design. The T-62 maintained the concept of a simple and inexpensive vehicle. While the T-64, though similar in appearance to the T-62, took the radical step of introducing more complex and expensive systems in an effort to compete with the sophisticated Western MBTs.

The lengthened main weapon was designed with high strength steel to accommodate the high barrel pressures required to attain the significant muzzle velocity of the kinetic energy based ammunition. The T-64 was lengthened to further decrease ground pressure through the addition of another track wheel, increasing from 5 for the T-62 to 6 for the T-64. Another revolutionary and characteristic feature of Soviet tank design was also introduced with the T-64. This is the integrated ammunition auto-loading system. The T-64 was the first full production tank to ever incorporate such a system and it resulting in a significant increase in main weapon reload time compared to manual loading in the cramped interior. Reload times with the auto-loader became comparable to Western MBTs, which still relied on manual loading of ammunition. Incorporation of the auto-loader also removed the loader, and so reduced crews from 4 to 3, as well as reduced the overall vehicle weight.

In 1967 the main weapon of the T-64 was further enhanced to a 125 mm smoothbore. Primarily designed to fire long-rod penetrators and HEAT rounds, an anti-tank missile was introduced in 1976 that could also be fired from the gun. These two revolutionary enhancements preceded Western developments by many years. Western powers continued to rely on their 105 mm rifled gun until development of relatively modern tanks, focusing on enhancing the design of the long-rod penetrators to improve their lethality rather than increase the gun bore (Implementing the bigger 125 mm was partly driven by the inability of the Soviets to adequately evolve their own long-rod penetrator designs). The original M1 Abrams in fact maintained the 105 mm gun and was only upgraded to the German 120 mm smoothbore with the M1A1 variant, when it was recognized that both a larger round and a better designed round would be necessary to defeat ever evolving Soviet armor.

T-80 MBT

The next significant Soviet MBT was the T-72, introduced in 1970. The T-72 returned to the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle used with the T-55 and T-62. While the complexities of the T-64 design were in turn used to develop the relatively sophisticated T-80. Though less widely built than the T-72 the T-80 introduced a number of progressive features, mimicking many of the better aspects of Western designs. Essentially, the Soviets were trying to figure out if KISS was adequate in a modern high-tech environment or if they would be compelled to produce complex but expensive vehicles to be able to compete with their Western competition. The Soviets do not have the large budgets of many Western nations and so need to be more conscientious of costs per unit when it comes to military equipment.

Lessons learned from combat experiences with the T-72 and the T-80 would in turn be used as the basis for development of the modern Russian T-90, a powerful lightweight vehicle that balances design simplicity with high-tech equipment. All three of these MBTs continued to employ the successful ammunition auto-loader, and therefore each still only requires a crew of 3 to operate the vehicle. Despite the introduction of ceramic and reactive armor, active protection systems and more advanced fire control systems, each of these MBTs all maintain many of the same key features typical of Soviet design, including the relatively small overall vehicle size and the small rounded turrets, with the corresponding overall light vehicle weight and high mobility performance as compared to their Western counterparts.

Overall, Soviet vehicle design conventions, and the relative advantages and drawbacks of these approaches, are summarized below.

  • The hull size of the T-34 and every subsequent MBT is relatively small compared to Western styled vehicles in an effort to improve mobility and reduce the vehicle silhouette. This places significant restrictions on the range of motion for the crew and often necessitates small sized crew members for some crew positions. As the weight of the vehicle is reduced through the smaller vehicle size, the power required to move the vehicle is therefore correspondingly reduced. Therefore a lower weight engine can be used, also lowering fuel consumption. But engine size does not decrease linearly with weight and therefore consumes more of the available space inside the vehicle. This acts to even further restrict the space available for the crew.
  • The small circular turret further aggravates the restriction on space availability for the gunner and commander, and loader when applicable. This space restriction not only reduced the rate at which the crews could respond to threats, put tended to exhaust the crews, further reducing their overall performance. Exhausted crews who were unable to move freely tended to reload more slowly, take longer to aim the weapon and were less likely to hit their intended target than Western crewed tanks.
  • Recognizing that Western vehicles were often reloaded at 2 to 3 times the rate of their own, the autoloader was introduced on the T-64. Early versions of this did not perform well, and even modern versions are prone to jamming. Once jammed, the gun cannot be used until the mechanism is cleared and re-set. This is a slow and cumbersome process within an already cramped vehicle interior.
  • The smaller chassis and turret size also reduced the number of main weapon rounds that the vehicle could carry, resulting in a greater potential of running out of ammunition through a battle. This problem was further aggravated when the weapon size was increased from 100 mm to 115 mm, and then to 125 mm. The larger the rounds, the fewer that can be carried in the same available space. The space taken up by the auto-loader also reduces the number of rounds that can be carried, and only a limited number of rounds fit in the auto-loader carousel. Once this ammunition is depleted, rounds must be manually loaded. In the cramped space and with the auto-loading mechanism in the loading path, this is a very slow process.
  • A small turret also results in a limited gun depression angle. This reduced the ability of the vehicle to defend itself against attacking infantry and while operating on a downward facing slope or in a ‘hull down position’, which is when the hull is concealed behind a barrier to improve protection and make the vehicle more difficult to hit.
  • The small vehicle size also meant that any ‘overmatch event’, which is to say when an incoming threat defeats the armor and penetrates the vehicle, would result in a higher probability of the penetrating fragments striking stored fuel or ammunition when compared with Western vehicles. This would typically result in ammo ‘cooking off’ and secondary combustion events, which in the cramped space would quickly kill the crew and destroy the vehicle. Until recently the Soviets have made little effort to isolate the vehicle fuel and ammunition from the crew as do Western designs. Soviet military philosophy stressed cost effective designs over crew survivability. A high value is placed on human life in Western societies. Russian government tends to regard humans as just one more expendable resource.
  • The equipment in the vehicle was more compactly packaged compared to Western vehicles and therefore overmatch events would also have a higher probably of damaging critical components of the communications, electrical, hydraulic and main weapon operating systems, resulting in a loss of functionality of the vehicle and a greater potential of being taken out of the battle.
  • Soviet guns were typically of a larger calibre than their Western counterparts. The larger gun however was necessary to off-set the poorer performance of Soviet long-rod penetrators, the performance of which suffered due to low quality manufacturing practises. Soviet main weapons also tend to provide inferior aiming capabilities compared to Western vehicles. The comparatively poor accuracy is a reflection of the lower fabrication quality of the gun barrel and more significantly is due to the lower sophistication of Soviet designed Computerized Fire Control Systems.
  • Soviet armor tends to be on par with Western armor and often even leads in introducing new concepts. The Soviets were the first to introduce ceramic armor, reactive armor, and Active Protection Systems, largely driving the development in Western nations of improved ammunition and armor systems. Soviets tend to layer their armor systems to produce an overall lighter armor solution, keeping vehicle weight down. However, because of their lesser attention to crew survivability, Soviet tanks are prone to having weak spots in an effort to reduce weight. Though the location of these weak spots are not evident, insurgents during the Chechnya Wars were quite successful through trial and error in finding these locations on T-80s and exploiting the weakness to destroy the vehicles.
  • The Soviet experience during WWII caused them to emphasize quantity over quality. The Soviets have typically fielded far more tanks than were in operation with all other countries in the world combined. They may not be built to the high design and manufacturing standards of the Western world, but they are not poorly built. This was much the same as how Soviet tanks compared to German tanks during WWII. Willing to take higher casualties than Western nations, the small size of Soviet tanks and their utilization of less expensive parts permitted them to overwhelm their enemy with excessive force. Ultimately the quantity of fielded Soviet tanks by 1943 made their victory inevitable. The Soviets/Russians continued to emphasize quantity over quality. Despite this, they are also often very innovative in their designs and progressive in their armored warfare theory.


General Dynamics took their experience and fire-control from the popular and widely-deployed Phalanx CIWS and matched it with 35mm cannon. Both Ford and GD submitted models for testing and Ford was ultimately selected as the winner. In the initial competition for the lucrative $4.5 billion contract, two firms emerged as front runners, General Dynamics (XM246) and the Ford (Aerospace) (XM247). The two, each of which had built a prototype DIVAD, held a shoot-off, and this was won hands-down by General Dynamics. According to a Pentagon report, Ford hit half as many targets as the General Dynamics, and the longest range of the Ford hits was only just over half the longest range of the General Dynamics hit (in all, General Dynamics shot down 15 helicopters, Ford only eight). The army, however, decided to opt for Ford.

The DIVAD contest was specifically started due to the problem of helicopters popping over ridges then retreating back behind it. The then current missile systems then were unable to get lock and fire before the helicopter ducked behind the ridge again, and America only had one gun armed SPAA, the 20mm Vulcan armed M163 VADS, which didn’t have enough effective range to counter helicopters.


There were several entries for the competition. Sperry Rand’s entry used their Vigilante gun firing 35mm Oerlikon ammunition, as used by several other NATO countries. The gun was fed from a magazine holding 1,464 rounds and was mounted in an aluminum turret. Two radars and an IFF system were mounted on top of the turret.

The entry from General Electric used the 30mm GAU-8 Avenger seven-barrel rotary cannon (the same cannon fitted to the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft). It had a single radar for both search and tracking, based on the AN/MPQ-49 Forward Area Alerting Radar.

Raytheon entered a system using the turret from the German Gepard anti-aircraft tank. It retained the same twin 35mm Oerlikon KDA cannons as the Gepard, but had a Hollandse radar and an Oerlikon Contraves fire-control computer. Despite being designed to be fitted to a Leopard I, Raytheon demonstrated that the turret could be fitted to an M48 with some modification.

The General Dynamics entry used the same twin cannons as the Raytheon, but mounted them side by side in the middle of a new aluminum turret. They were fed from 600 round magazines and could achieve a combined rate of fire of 1,100 rounds per minute. Radar and fire control were based on the systems used on the Phalanx ship-board CIWS (close-in weapons system). The search radar was mounted on top of the turret, with the tracking radar next to the guns.

Ford Aerospace entered a system using two Bofors 40mm L/70 cannons, mounted in the middle of the turret. Two radars (one search, one tracking) were mounted on booms on top of the turret, allowing them to be folded down for travel. The tracking radar was based on the Westinghouse AN/APG-66 , as fitted to the F-16 fighter. The turret’s armour was proof against small arms fire and artillery splinters, and the vehicle had NBC protection for the crew.


The choice of a 40mm gun in the Ford design was the subject of some controversy. Some maintained that Ford chose it because they had a marketing agreement with Bofors, and could therefore make more profit from Bofors guns. On the other hand, FACC had developed a 40mm round with a proximity fuse, and the larger round meant a greater quantity of high explosive. These both led to a higher probability of a kill.

In early 1978, General Dynamics and Ford were given $79 million contracts to produce prototypes, designated the XM246 and XM247 respectively. In 1980, each company delivered two prototypes for testing at Fort Bliss. The tests lasted five months, and it was said that the General Dynamics vehicle had out performed the Ford vehicle consistently in the tests, but the Ford was controversially chosen as the winner in 1981 (there were accusations that the Ford was only chosen due to intense lobbying). Ford were given a fixed-price contract for the completion of development and the initial production run. The vehicle was officially designated the M247 Sergeant York. The contract included an option for the army to buy up to 276 vehicles over three years, and it was expected that the army would buy a total of 618 vehicles.

Why the US just didn’t stick a FlakPanzer Gepard turret on top of an M-60 and called it a day? It was a proven system with common ammo (in Europe where the wars would be fought that needed this kind of system) all you had to worry about was fitting the turret onto a new chassis.

Because all the gun SPAAG systems built in the West were never really used or required, it was presumed (pretty accurately) that should the cold war have kicked off the West would have maintained almost complete air superiority after a short period of conflict. Most war games or tests conducted by Western commanders showed that the USSR’s air force would have been relegated to a defensive role after a few weeks of fighting even under optimistic scenarios.

Helicopter gunships are the issue however they suffer from the key problem that they require complete air superiority before they can be effectively employed, helicopters are complete tank killers but in the conflict of the time that everyone was building for when the F-15/14 rolled out into the West’s arsenal and the first Mig-25 defected NATO knew that it held the advantage in the air by a large margin.

It was one of the reasons the Soviets had so many SPAAG systems covering both guns and missile systems compared to the West as they were aware that they would need them.

On top of that the new systems that were developed such as Gepard and Marksman for the west were primarily aimed towards protecting tanks from low level gunships and attack aircraft such as the SU-25 but by the time they had been developed the Missile had already been cemented in the West as the leading AA weapon to field and the SPAAG system was relegated. It was further driven back by the development of MANPADS systems and light AA vehicles such as the US army’s Avenger.

The technical failure of Sgt. York comes down to Ford Aerospace being way too ambitious.

Their decision to use a modified version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s radar as the central component of an all-new fire control system instead of upgrading an existing proven surface-to-air fire control system like Gepard or Phalanx (as pretty much all the competing designs did) was motivated by the desire to put *the* most advanced possible system into competition while at least nominally satisfying the requirement for off-the-shelf components. The Sgt. York’s cannon feed system was similarly cutting-edge; it was a then-revolutionary linkless linear feed allowing pushbutton switching between dual ammunition types, a “killer app” feature that none of the other DIVAD proposals could match with conventional linked feeds.

Unfortunately turning a system designed for air-to-ground around to operate as ground-to-air proved much more difficult in practice than theory, and the very limited timescale allowed for development meant that the very bad teething issues became painfully public. If development had continued, it probably would have worked out in the end; there was nothing INHERENTLY wrong with the setup.

The only actually bad thing about the Sgt. York was that it for reasons of industrial politics (Ford having a pre-existing contract with Bofors), it was equipped with Bofors 40mm L/70 cannons rather than Oerlikon 35mm cannons — the problem being that the long-barrel Bofors is totally incompatible with its predecessor the Bofors 40mm L/60, all the way down to firing completely different ammunition. And said predecessor is the only 40mm that’s actually in U.S. inventory, so Ford’s unfortunately successful lobbying to allow DIVAD to be a “30 to 40mm cannon” instead of the established NATO standard 35mm for heavy AA had the effect of delivering a configuration whose only advantage was increased profits for Ford and Bofors. The XM247 did use the same 35mm Oerlikon cannons.

The reason I say that the best DIVAD decision would be to reject the Ford for the General Dynamics is that DIVAD was pretty much regarded as a we need it yesterday emergency procurement against the emergent threat of more capable attack helicopters like the Hind; that’s really not the time to go pushing the cutting edge the way Ford was trying to sell. Ford’s design certainly has superior long-term potential, but General Dynamics ‘s design is a much lower-risk development which better meets that immediate need.

Computing gunsights were developed precisely because even with something doing the calculations for you, hitting a moving aircraft is extraordinarily difficult on the best of days and a human being using fixed sights (i.e. no computer involved) makes that even worse. Radar is used because it can essentially calculate – with perfect accuracy – the speed, range and altitude of a target and feed that into an aimpoint. Computer-control is used because human reaction times are worse than electro-mechanical reaction times: a good feedback system can keep the barrels on aimpoint better than 99% of the time, for hours at a time.

As an aside, this platform will be absolute murder in an urban environment or against infantry or other vehicles as well. A hail of 20mm shells coupled with a sensitive thermal imager and good optics is a damned scary thing to fly, drive or run into.

The hilarious postscript to the DIVAD story is that the Army gave up and cancelled the system just as it reached the point of finally being debugged enough to actually start working properly. The Navy promptly swooped in and acquired the four Sgt. York prototypes for the cost of shipping them and has actually been using them as opponent systems for pilot training ever since.

Of Tanks and Storm Troops II

Following the `holing’ of two Mark IV (female) tanks by `Nixe’, which forced the British tanks to withdraw from the Cachy Switch, 2nd Lieutenant Frank Mitchell’s Mark IV (male) engages his German adversary, striking its starboard plate.

Russia had at last staggered out of the war and was preoccupied with her own internal struggles, while it would be some months before American troops could reach the battlefields in any significant numbers. In the period before the American presence could make itself felt, the troops released from the Eastern Front could be used to deal the tired British and French armies a series of knock-out blows.

In Ludendorff’s eyes, Great Britain had become the dominant partner in the Alliance, not merely at sea, but also on land. He reasoned that if the French were beaten into surrender, the British would continue to fight; that the reverse did not apply; therefore the next major offensive must be designed to inflict a severe defeat on the British and physically separate them from their Allies.

The offensive, codenamed Michael, would begin with a massive attack on the Arras – Cambrai – St Quentin sector. The strategic objective would be the communications centre of Amiens, and a mere twenty miles beyond lay an even more glittering prize, the Somme estuary and the sea. If only the sea could be reached, the Western Front would be ripped apart and the British armies confined to a coastal enclave; from that point onwards the British would be fighting for survival and not for victory. It was an attractive strategy, and one which, some twenty-two years later, would form the basis of a plan presented to the Führer by Field Marshal von Manstein.

On the forty-mile stretch of front no less than 67 divisions of the German Seventeenth, Second and Eighteenth Armies had been concentrated against a total of 33 belonging to Gough’s Fifth and Byng’s Third Armies. In addition Ludendorff’s team would include a number of very important names, including those of von Hutier, hero of Riga, and von Below, the victor of Caporetto.

Also present was a Colonel Bruchmuller, who had fired the crucial opening bombardment at Riga. Bruchmuller was a brilliant artilleryman who commanded a “travelling Circus” of medium and heavy guns which moved up and down the line throughout Ludendorff’s 1918 series of offensives. He insisted that all batteries under his command should register their targets by mathematical survey rather than by the more usual ranging shellfire, thus achieving total surprise when they did open up. During its career, the Bruchmuller Circus consistently achieved such spectacular results that the colonel became know throughout the army as Durchbruch Muller (Break-Through Muller).

In great secrecy the German artillery was focused against Gough and Byng, so that 4,010 field guns opposed only 1,710, and 2,588 medium and heavy pieces were ranged against the 976 available to the British. In the meantime, events on the other side of the wire were also tending to further the success of the German plans. Not only had more of the front been taken over from the French, a new system of defence was being developed as well. This contained three elements: a Forward Zone, consisting of a series of strong-points which were in effect little more than fortified outposts; a Battle Zone trench system manned by about one third of the defenders, some two to three miles behind the Forward Zone; and a Rear Zone trench system, housing the reserves, some four to eight miles beyond the Battle Zone.

Every aspect of the system played right into Ludendorff’s hands. The Forward Zone provided the Storm Troops with the very opportunities they sought to infiltrate: the Battle Zone was within range of the German artillery yet lacked dug-outs in which the troops could shelter during bombardment; and in places the Rear Zone had not even been dug, its location being marked by a line of spit-locked turf. The system was, in short, a recipe for complete disaster, revealing how little the British understood of the new German artillery and infantry tactics, compounded by the fact that each nine-battalion division was badly below strength, battalions containing an average of 500 effectives in contrast to the 1000 with which they had gone to war.

Deserters had warned of the impending offensive, but none of the defenders had the slightest inkling of just what was in store for them.

At 0440 on 21st March almost 7,000 guns rocked the atmosphere with the opening salvo of the most concentrated bombardment in the history of the war. It is said that when the 2,500 British guns opened up in reply there was no appreciable difference in the noise level, since the air was too disturbed by continuous shock waves to conduct more than an impression of sound.

From 0440 until 0640 Bruchmuller’s men fired a mixture of gas and high explosive shells into the British gun batteries, command posts, communication centres and bivouac areas, punctuated at 0530 by a ten-minute switch directly onto the Forward Zone. At 0640 there was a 30-minute pause to rest the sweating gun crews, during which batteries fired check rounds only.

At 0710 the guns thundered out again, hammering the British trench systems while the heaviest pieces engaged targets in the rear. By 0940 the whole area had been combed and swept several times, and what was not smashed by high explosive was drenched in gas and shrouded in drifting smoke. At 0900 the fire rose to a crescendo, its pattern changing ominously to a barrage which obliterated what remained of the Forward Zone, then lifted 300 metres, halted for three minutes, lifted 200 metres, halted for four minutes, and lifted again, maintaining a steady progress into the Battle Zone.

0940 was the Storm Troopers’ H-Hour. Their rapid advance across No Man’s Land was cloaked by a natural mist and they met little resistance in the shattered Forward Zone. They pressed on into the Battle Zone, their green signal rockets soaring to request an acceleration of the creeping barrage, and were seen working their way through gaps in the main trench line. Behind came the Battle Groups, isolating and subduing small pockets of stubborn defenders, and in their wake followed the main weight of the attack. Only the Schlachtstaffeln were absent, grounded by the mist, but as this cleared they began to arrive over the battlefield about midday, their activities covered by a swarm of fighters.

One characteristic of the British soldier is his stubborn immobility in defence. With their telephone links to the rear cut by shellfire, battalions fought their battles with little direction from their higher formation. Some, the luckier ones, were able to withdraw, doggedly covering the retreat of the artillery; others, more quickly surrounded, fought on to the death and were never heard from again. These, and little group of cooks, clerks, batmen, signallers and drivers, rushed into the line at a minute’s notice, all took toll of their attackers, but the fact remained that by nightfall a forty-mile gap had been punched in the line and Fifth Army was on the point of disintegration.

The week that followed was one of deep trauma for the British both in France and at home. The Flesquiers salient, last remnant of the great tank attack at Cambrai, was swallowed up in the first day’s advance; four days later all the ground that had been bought so bloodily during the Somme battle was once more in German hands. British and French divisions, hurrying to plug the gap, found themselves caught up in the general retreat.

The crisis was of such proportion that on 26th March the Allies appointed a Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, to co¬ ordinate counter-measures. Everyone appreciated the strategic significance of Amiens and divisions from both the British and French sectors were despatched quickly into the danger area. By 5th April the line had been stabilized at Villers-Bretonneux, a mere ten miles east of Amiens, partly because of these counter-measures and partly because the German offensive was running down in obedience to the laws of the attack.

The Storm Troops, having advanced up to forty miles in a week in the van of a hard-fought battle, were exhausted and had suffered a fiercer rate of attrition than had been allowed for. Their casualties been caused by the stubborn defence, by the RFC’s universal ground- strafing, and by encounters with tanks fighting in the counter-attack role.

These last encounters are of interest, for while it is true to say that tanks can take ground but not hold it, they can buy time, which in war is the most priceless commodity of all. On a number of occasions tanks caught Storm Troop and Battle Group units in the open and dispersed them with some slaughter, effectively blunting divisional spearheads and so delaying the advance of the main body until a reorganization could be effected.

There was another influence at work too, a factor which could not have been foreseen by either side. God tends to remain aloof from Man’s foolishness, but the devil does not and the battlefield is his playground. On 28th March German air reconnaissance reported that the country between Albert and Amiens was clear of Allied troops, but for no intelligible reason the advance did not proceed beyond the town of Albert itself. A staff officer was sent forward by car to investigate. On arrival he found a state of complete bedlam. Drunken men, some wearing top hats and other looted clothing, were staggering about the streets, helping themselves to whatever they fancied, quite beyond the control of their officers. By the time the advance was resumed, Amiens was no longer attainable.

Elsewhere along the front similar scenes were taking place whenever an Allied supply depot was captured. Weary Storm Troopers, suddenly presented with stocks of drink, real tobacco, real coffee and items of food which the British maritime blockade had long since made a memory in Germany, found themselves unable to resist the temptation to gorge themselves with unaccustomed luxuries; even such mundane things as boot polish and notepaper had not been seen in the trenches for many months, and now they were to be had for the taking.

The advance was resumed as soon as order had been restored, but the Storm Troops’ keen psychological edge had been dulled and the élan of the early days was lacking. The daily advance rate became slower and slower until it was clear that the Michael offensive was over.

Disregarding the demoralizing effects of the Allied supply depots, it must be admitted that Ludendorff had it within his power to capture Amiens. That he did not do so stemmed from a decision taken as early as 23rd March. Instead of maintaining the westward march of his three armies, he dispersed their effort, insisting that Seventeenth and Eighteenth Armies should turn respectively north-west and south-west, while in the centre Second Army alone continued along its original axis.

This can be justified only in part as the conventional strategy of building protective shoulders for the huge salient which was forming, but it also denied a basic military tenet and fundamental principle of Blitzkrieg, namely Maintenance of the Objective; in other words, having set Amiens as his primary strategic objective, the majority of his effort should have been directed at capturing the city in accordance with the aims of his original plan.

His decision, in conjunction with the various other factors already mentioned above, did not merely cost him a meticulously planned and gallantly executed infantry Blitzkrieg victory; ultimately it cost Germany the war.

The following month Ludendorff would attack again, this time in Flanders, recovering all the ground lost during the 1917 British offensive, and in May the French were forced back more than thirty miles on the Chemin des Dames sector, but neither operation possessed the same strategic menace as had the great drive on Amiens. Not that Amiens had been forgotten. On 24th April the Germans mounted a surprise attack on Villers-Bretonneux, heralded as usual by an intense bombardment with gas and high explosive. This time, however, it was not the Storm Troops who emerged from the morning mist but tanks of a totally unfamiliar design.

The tanks’ break-through at Cambrai had at last convinced the Germans that they must, after all, form their own Panzer Corps. Experiments had been going on in a dilatory sort of way since October 1916, conducted by the secret Allgemaine Kriegsdepartment 7 Abteilung Verkehrswesen (General War Department 7, Traffic Section), known as A7V for short, which also gave its name to the finished product, of which only a handful had been built by the Spring of 1918.

In form the A7V followed the French concept of an armoured box on a tracked chassis. Its armament consisted of one 57-mm Russian Sokol gun in the front plate, two machine-guns on each side and two at the rear. Although possessing a sprung suspension the vehicle was a poor cross-country performer and had a high centre of gravity. Inside no less than eighteen men were stuffed in supreme discomfort into a space measuring 24 feet by 10 feet, which also housed two 100-h.p. Daimler engines.

In conjunction with five captured Mark IVs, four A7Vs had been used in penny packets on the first day of the Michael offensive. Their use had gone unrecorded by the British, since those who had seen the tanks had either been killed or captured. Thereafter, the tanks’ low mechanical endurance had prevented them from keeping up with the advance.

At Villers-Bretonneux the Germans led their attack with a total of twelve A7Vs. The effect of the tanks on the British infantry was precisely the same as it had been on the German. A three-mile gap appeared in the line, through which the Storm Troops poured into the shattered town.

However, a little way to the south-west lay the Bois de l’Abbe, and lying up in the wood were two Female and one Male Mark IVs of No 1 Section A Company 1st Battalion Tank Corps, commanded by Captain J. C. Brown. The crews were still suffering from the effects of gas but those who had not been totally incapacitated manned their vehicles and proceeded towards the still unbroken Cachy switch-line. Throughout the subsequent action Brown controlled his tanks on foot, running across open ground between them to direct their movement.

No sooner had No 1 Section emerged from the wood than they were warned by the infantry of the presence of German armour. The following extracts are taken from an account of the engagement written by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell, commanding the Male tank.

“I informed the crew, and a great thrill ran through us all. Opening a loophole, I looked out. There, some 300 yards away, a round, squat¬ looking monster was advancing; behind it came waves of infantry, and farther away to the left and right crawled two more of these armed tortoises.”

Mitchell’s right-hand gunner at once engaged the German vehicle with his 6-pounder. He worked under the greatest difficulty, being all but blinded by gas, and was forced to load for himself while the Male pitched in and out of shell holes, his usual loader being one of those left behind in the wood. Meanwhile the A7V, Elfriede of 3rd Panzer Abteilung, was firing at the other tanks in the section with its 57-mm gun. The two Females, being armed only with machine-guns, were powerless to reply and were quickly forced to retire with holes blown in their armour plate. Simultaneously the A7V’s machine gunners were engaging Mitchell’s vehicle, sending the crew diving to the floor as a continuous shower of sparks and splinters flew off the inside of the hull. Mitchell decided to halt so as to give his gunner a better chance.

“The pause was justified; a well-aimed shot hit the enemy’s conning tower, bringing him to a standstill. Another round and yet another white puff at the front of the tank denoted a second hit! Peering with swollen eyes through his narrow slit, the gunner shouted words of triumph that were drowned by the roar of the engine. Then once more he aimed with great deliberation and hit for the third time. Through a loophole I saw the tank heel over to one side; then a door opened and out ran the crew. We had knocked the monster out! Quickly I signalled to the machine gunner and he poured volley after volley into the retreating figures.”

Elfriede’s driver, probably concussed by the thunder-clap explosion of the first 6-pounder round against what Mitchell calls, with some justice, the conning tower, had lost direction and run his tank slantwise onto a steep slope. The second and third hits seem to have caused little damage, but the ground had given way beneath the A7V, which slowly toppled onto its side into a sand pit.

Well pleased with the result of the action, Mitchell set off in a slow-motion pursuit of the two remaining German tanks, which had begun to retire towards their own lines. Unfortunately, a direct hit from an artillery shell brought an end to the chase and Mitchell and his crew were forced to evacuate their vehicle and shelter in the nearest infantry trench.

The state of play was now as follows. On the British side, Mitchell’s Male had been immobilized and Brown’s two Females had retired with battle damage; to balance this one German tank had been knocked out and two more had voluntarily withdrawn, leaving the Storm Troops vulnerable to counter-attack if more British tanks appeared.

That this actually occurred was rather the result of personal initiative than of any grand design. An RFC pilot, flying over the area of the tank battle, had observed the stalled German infantry preparing to advance again towards the switch-line and had dropped a message to that effect into the harbour area of a 3rd Battalion Tank Company three miles west of Cachy.

The tank company consisted of seven Whippets commanded by Captain T. R. Price, who at once set his vehicles in motion. As he approached the battle area Price deployed his tanks into line abreast and advanced at top speed over good going. The Germans, amounting to two battalions, were taken completely by surprise while forming up in a hollow and were massacred as the Whippets tore into them, machine-guns blazing. At the end of their run the tanks wheeled round and combed the area again, the crews later being sickened by the discovery that their tracks were “covered in blood and human remains”. Both German battalions were utterly dispersed with the loss of 400 men killed. British casualties amounted to three killed and two wounded. Three Whippets were slightly damaged by shellfire. A fourth, which against Price’s orders had shown itself on a skyline, was knocked out – at the time it was thought by artillery, although it was later found to have fallen victim to a solitary A7V which remained in the area.

So ended the first tank battle in history. The Germans abandoned their attempt to take Cachy and during the night an Australian attack threw them out of Villers-Bretonneux.


Russia develops new mine-clearing systems

The Russian BMR-3M is a T-90 hull with the turret replaced with a superstructure housing the crew and other mine clearing equipment. Attached to the front of the vehicle are two arms each with solid steel wheels that whilst driving over mines, their weight detonates them and thanks to their thickness are not damaged, allowing the vehicle to continue along its path with other tanks such as the T-90 following it.

Latest Russian TMS-S mine clearing system installed on the front of the BMR-3M armoured deminer, showing the mine clearing rollers, two pole-type electromagnetic devices and the explosive reactive armour over the frontal arc. (Stankomash)

Russia’s Stankomash has completed development of the engineering tank mine-sweeping system TMS-S.

The TMS-S is mounted on the front of Russian BMR-3M armoured demining vehicles, recognisable by their raised rear roofline, providing space for the two crew and three combat engineers.

The system features eight mine-clearing rollers installed on hinged arms, which cover the full width of the vehicle. A blade is mounted on either side to cut through command detonation wires.

Mounted above the rollers are two pole-type electro-magnetic attachments and a mine ‘trawl’ (known locally as a UTPBM), which is claimed to be able to neutralise mines activated by the acoustic, thermal and seismic signatures of the vehicle.

A Russian firm is marketing a new mine-clearing system (TMS-S) that can be attached to tanks or armored engineer vehicles in 95 minutes and allows the mine clearing vehicle to move down a road at up to 15 kilometers an hour, clearing any mines. The basic tool is the rollers (heavy barrels that are rigged to run in front a vehicle and set off mines). The rollers are heavy enough to simulate the weight of a vehicle. In addition there are plow-like devices on each side of the device to cut wires used to detonate some types of mines. There are also two poles carrying an electromagnetic device (the UTPBM) that are said to be capable of disabling new mines that detect a specific acoustic, thermal, or seismic information about passing vehicles and only explode if a specific profile is detected. There are two versions of TMS-S. The 13 ton version is for armored engineer vehicles, while a smaller (fewer rollers) 7 ton version is used to mount on T-72/80/90 tanks. With the rollers in the up position (so they do not contact the road) the using vehicle can move at up to 45 kilometers an hour on a road.

Rollers in general are an old (World War II era) mine clearing device and proved useful in Iraq and Afghanistan where special sets of rollers were frequently used. The most frequently used American roller gear (SPARK, for Self-Protection Adaptive Roller Kit) was built to be used by a heavy truck or MRAP (heavily armored trucks). Over 300 SPARK systems were sent to Iraq, where they detonated over 70 anti-vehicle mines and “proofed” thousands of kilometers of road, verifying that the routes were mine free. All this saved hundreds of American lives, which means a lot when you consider that only 4,500 U. S. troops were killed in Iraq, about half of them on the roads (mostly from roadside bombs and mines). A customized (for local conditions) version of SPARK was designed for Afghanistan as well. Other NATO nations used roller kits, often of local design. The Russians have been using rollers since World War II and TMS-S is simply the latest refinement of this method.