Wednesday, February 25, 2015

“Fortress Tank”

France had fought World War I without a heavy tank. In July 1918, at the very end of that conflict, it began development of such a machine. Manufactured by FCM (Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée, Le Seyne, Toulon), the Char 2C was intended as a breakthrough tank or “Fortress Tank” (Char de forteresse), intended to lead the great Allied offensives that were planned for the spring of 1919. France planned to produce 300, but only 10 were ever built. This monster had a crew of 12, weighed some 152,100 pounds, and was powered by two Maybach or Daimler Benz 250-hp gasoline engines. It had a speed of 7.5 mph. The Char 2C had maximum 45mm armor and was armed with a turreted 75mm gun (later a 155mm) and four machine guns.

The Char 2C had a loaded weight of 69 tonnes, partly because of its armour - 45 mm at the front, 22 mm at the sides, but much of it just because of its huge size. The armour was among the thickest of World War I-era tanks, though by modern standards this would be considered thin. It is still easily the largest tank ever taken into production. With the tail fitted, the hull was over twelve metres long. Within its ample frame there was room for two fighting compartments. The first at the front, crowned by a three-man turret (the first in history) with a long 75 mm gun, and the second at the back, topped by a machine gun turret. Both turrets had stroboscopic cupolas. The three independent 8 mm machine gun positions at the front gave protection against infantry assault.

The Char 2C is the only super-heavy tank ever to attain operational status — a super-heavy tank is not simply a tank that is very heavy but one that is much heavier than regular tanks of its period. The next operational tank to weigh about the same would be the Tiger II heavy tank of World War II.

The fighting compartments were connected by the engine room. Each track was powered by its own 200 or 250 hp engine, via an electrical transmission. Top speed was 15 km/h. Seven fuel tanks, containing 1,260 litres, gave it a range of 150 kilometres.

To man the tank required a crew of twelve: driver, commander, gunner, loader, four machine gunners, mechanic, electrician, assistant-electrician/mechanic and a radio operator. Some sources report thirteen, probably due to pictures of the crews that included the company commander.

The ten tanks were part of several consecutive units, their organic strength at one time reduced to three. Their military value slowly decreased as more advanced tanks were developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 1930s they were largely obsolete, because their slow speed and high profile made them vulnerable to advances in anti-tank guns.

Nevertheless, during the French mobilisation of 1939, all ten were activated and put into their own unit, the 51st Bataillon de Chars de Combat. For propaganda, each tank had been named after one of the ancient regions of France, numbers 90-99 named Poitou; Provence; Picardie; Alsace; Bretagne; Touraine; Anjou; Normandie; Berry; Champagne respectively. In 1939, the Normandie was renamed Lorraine. As their main value was in propaganda, the giants were carefully kept from harm and did not participate in the September 1939 attack on the Siegfried Line. They were used for numerous morale-boosting movies, climbing and crushing old French forts instead. To the public, they obtained the reputation of invincible super tanks, the imagined dimensions of which far surpassing the real ones.

Of course, the French commanders knew perfectly well this reputation was undeserved. When the German Panzerdivisionen in the execution of Operation Fall Rot ripped apart the French lines after 10 June 1940, the decision was made to prevent the capture of the famous equipment. It was to be sent to the south by rail transport. On 15 June the rail was blocked by a burning fuel train, so it became inevitable to destroy the tanks by detonating charges. Later Goebbels and Goering claimed the tanks were hit by German dive bombers. This propaganda lie was to be repeated by many sources. One tank, the Champagne, was nevertheless captured more or less intact and brought to Berlin to be exhibited as a war trophy. In 1948 this tank disappeared, causing many to speculate it still survives at the Russian Tank museum in Kubinka.

In 1926, the later Champagne was modified into the Char 2C bis, an experimental type with a 155 mm howitzer in a cast turret. New engines were fitted and the machine gun positions deleted. In this configuration the tank weighed perhaps 74 tons. The change was only temporary though, as the vehicle was brought back into its previous condition the very same year; the new turret was used in the Tunisian Mareth Line.

Between 15 November and 15 December 1939 the Lorraine, as the company command tank, was experimentally up-armoured at the Société des Aciéries d'Homecourt to make it immune to standard German antitank guns. The front armour was enhanced to 90 mm, the side to 65 mm. In this configuration, weighing about 75 tons, the Lorraine had at that time the thickest armour of any operational tank, and is probably still the heaviest operational tank ever


Medium Mark A Whippet

Whippets arrived late in the First World War, at a time when the entire British Army, crippled by the losses in Flanders, was quite inactive. They first went into action in March 1918, and proved very useful to cover the flight of the infantry divisions recoiling from the German onslaught during the Spring Offensive. Whippets were then assigned to the normal Tank Battalions as extra "X-companies" as an expedience. In one incident near Cachy, a single Whippet company of seven tanks wiped out two entire German infantry battalions caught in the open, killing over 400. That same day, 24 April, one Whippet was destroyed by a German A7V in the world's second tank battle, the only time a Whippet fought an enemy tank.

British losses were so high however that plans to equip five Tank Battalions (Light) with 36 Whippets each had to be abandoned. In the end only the 3rd Tank Brigade had Whippets, 48 in each of its two battalions (3rd and 6th TB). Alongside Mark IV and V tanks, they took part in the Amiens offensive (8 August 1918) which was described by the German supreme commander General Ludendorff, as "the Black Day of the German Army". The Whippets broke through into the German rear areas causing the loss of the artillery in an entire front sector, a devastating blow from which the Germans were unable to recover. During this battle, one Whippet – Musical Box – advanced so far it was cut off behind German lines. For nine hours it roamed at will, destroying an artillery battery, an Observation balloon, the camp of an infantry battalion and a transport column of the German 225. Division, inflicting heavy casualties. At one point, cans of petrol being carried on Musical Box's roof were ruptured by small-arms fire and fuel leaked into the cabin. The crew had to wear gas masks to survive the fumes. Eventually, a German shell disabled it and as the crew abandoned the tank one was shot and killed and the other two were taken prisoner.

The Germans captured fewer than fifteen Whippets, two of which were in running condition. They were kept exclusively for tests and training purpose during the war, but one of them saw action afterwards with the Freikorps in the German Revolution of 1918–1919. The Germans gave them the designation Beutepanzer A.

After the war, Whippets were sent to Ireland during the Anglo-Irish War as part of the British forces there, serving with 17th Battalion, Royal Tank Corps. Seventeen were sent with the Expedition Forces in support of the Whites against Soviet Russia. The Red Army captured twelve, using them until the 1930s, and fitted at least one vehicle with a French 37 mm Puteaux gun. The Soviets, incorrectly assuming that the name of the engine was "Taylor" instead of "Tylor" (a mistake many sources still make) called the tank the Tyeilor. A few (perhaps six) were exported to Japan, where they remained in service until around 1930.

Soviet Armored Trains

Avalanche Press

Soviet Armored Trains
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2014

Armored trains proved themselves well suited to the conditions of the Russian Civil War, which raged from 1919 until 1922. The Imperial Russian Army had fielded seven official armored trains during the First World War, but these were usually used as mobile artillery platforms. The more fluid situations of the Civil War, in which the armies were much smaller and there often were no fixed front lines, brought forth greater use of armored trains.

A train can carry an enormous load of weapons and manpower. The typical armored train had an armored locomotive, and up to six cars fitted out as weapons platforms. These had one or two field guns each, plus machine guns. A single train could easily bring a battalion’s worth of firepower to bear on its target. A typical Bolshevik early armored train with two armored wagons had a crew of 95: 24 to work the train itself, and 71 to man the weapons.

Russia did not have an advanced automotive industry capable of turning out tanks and armored cars (few nations did in 1919), but the Russian factories that produced locomotives and rolling stock could easily turn their hands to making military trains. Designs became more sophisticated, with armored turrets for the machine guns and cannon. By early 1921, the Red Army alone had 122 armored trains in service, not counting locally-made improvised versions. Many of the trains carried naval guns ranging from 3-inch to 6-inch caliber, and usually drew their crews from the highly-motivated, pro-Bolshevik crews of the former Tsarist Baltic and Black Sea fleets. The sailors also had a much higher literacy rate than the typical army soldier, and often had technical training as well.

Red Army practice teamed the trains in groups of three. A light armored train was armed with machine guns, carrying an infantry company and sometimes even cavalry. The heavy armored train’s big naval cannon provided the fire support. Finally, a maintenance train was ready to deal with the armored train’s greatest weakness: damaged tracks.

By 1920 the Red Army was using armored trains in groups, sometimes six or more of them at a time. And on several occasions, armored trains fought other armored trains belonging to the White faction or to the Polish army.

“In recent battles armored trains have been the most serious and terrible opponent,” read a Polish order of the day. “They are well designed, acting surprisingly decisively, have large amounts of firepower and are a linchpin of the enemy’s strategy. Our infantry is powerless against enemy armored trains.”

The same re-armament plan that brought out a series of new tanks in the early 1930s also called for new, purpose-built armored trains. The standard BP-35 armored train used many components from the tank program (for example, the same 76.2mm turret as the T-35 heavy tank). When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Red Army had 34 light and 19 heavy armored trains, while the NKVD had another 25 armored trains (many of them Civil War veterans) and 36 self-propelled armored wagons (a large locomotive sporting several tank turrets).

Armored trains proved themselves extremely useful in covering the Red Army’s retreats during the summer of 1941 — all of the rail lines ahead of them were in friendly hands, and they could unleash their massive firepower from secure locations. Soviet workshops began producing more trains as quickly as possible, and by late September two dozen more had taken to the rails.
Two turret-mounted 107mm howitzers of a BP-35 armored train.

The big armored trains proved vulnerable to German air attacks, and in January 1942 Soviet factories began turning out a new design, the OB-3, with more, smaller wagons each carrying one gun turret or anti-aircraft gun. This would allow the crew to jettison damaged cars without losing as much of the train’s firepower, and their lower profile would make them more difficult to hit. But armor quality was poor (often a pair of mild steel plates with several inches of concrete poured between them) and the weapons were the leftovers from the Red Army’s depots — guns of French and Polish manufacture captured during the Civil War. Twenty of the 65 OB-3 trains built were lost in action.
The final Soviet armored train design was the BP-43, a modified OB-3 with real armor and tank turrets from the T-34 production line. Twenty-one of these were built by the end of the war.

In the game, armored trains are, of course, limited to movement on railroad tracks. A train can both move and fire in the same action segment, unlike a tank, but otherwise is treated just like a tank. The piece provided in the game represents a smaller vehicle, the M1938 self-propelled armored wagon, and as such can be destroyed by anti-tank fire.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.

Nippon’s first dreadnought

The oldest battleships deployed by Japan during World War II were Nippon’s first dreadnought class, the four impressive Kongos (Kongo, Hiei, Haruna, and Kirishima). These were the only warships ever to have begun their service lives as battle cruisers and to be later rebuilt into battleships. They were slightly faster than contemporary RN battle cruisers, yet their protection was almost on a battleship level. Although the designs were British, Kongo was the last Japanese battleship to be actually built abroad (design and construction by Vickers of Great Britain). In a foresighted move, similar to that of the U.S. Navy with the Iowas, all four units were modernized, beginning in the mid-1930s, to increase speed specifically to serve as escorts for Japan’s projected aircraft carrier task force in the event of war. They emerged from this modernization as true battleships. (Hiei, declared in violation under the terms of the Washington Treaty, was partially disarmed, stripped of heavy side armor, and lost 25 of its 36 boilers to reduce speed; it was rearmed, rearmored, and reboilered in the 1930s.) This was a time when the IJN and the U.S. Navy considered carriers to be primarily the eyes of the fleet. The Kongos enjoyed so high a reputation that the British, during World War I, had requested them on loan!

As with the Kongos, the next Japanese battleship class, the Fusos, Japan’s first super-dreadnoughts, were completely modernized in the mid-1930s and given bizarre pagoda foremasts, in which platforms, bridges, masts, and the like seemed piled one on top of the other to no discernable pattern. Both were sunk at the Battle of Surigao Strait on 25 October 1944. The Ise class (Ise and Hyuga), follow-ons to the Fuso class, were also modernized during the 1930s.

The IJN fought its epic struggle with the United States, and to a much lesser extent with the British, almost entirely in the Pacific and lost all but one of its capital ships. In addition to Yamato and the aging Kongos, the IJN could deploy the World War I-era Fusos (Fuso and Yamashiro, laid down in 1912 and 1913, respectively); Ises (Ise and Hyuga, both laid down in 1915), and the Nagatos (Nagato and Mutsu, laid down in 1917 and 1918, respectively).

Germany’s dreadnoughts

Germany’s first dreadnought-type battleships were the Nassau class (Nassau, Westfalen, Rheinland, and Posen, completed in 1910). These warships represented no great advance over Dreadnought, but the German Navy did enjoy certain areas of distinct superiority over its RN rival that would persist through World War I. All four Nassaus fought at Jutland. The following Helgoland class (Helgoland, Ostfriesland, Thuringen, and Oldenburg, completed 1911–1912) were improved Nassaus and also fought at Jutland, as did the succeeding Kaisers (Kaiser, Friederich der Grosse, Kaiserin, Koenig Albert, and Prinzregent Luitpold, completed 1912–1913). These German battleships pioneered super-firing guns and were the first with turbine drives (only one German firm could manufacture large turbines, and von Tirpitz at first reserved its products for his cruisers). Oddly and uniquely, their super-firing turrets were mounted aft only (leading to some British jokes about the Germans taking pains to cover themselves in retreat). They and the succeeding Koenig class (Koenig, Grosser Kurfurst, Markgraf, and Kronprinz) also fought at Jutland. The latter class was completed in 1914 and was the last to carry wing turrets, whose arc of fire was constricted by the warship’s superstructure to something like 50 percent of possible sweep.

The last class of German battleships to fight during World War I were the Bayerns (Bayern and Baden, completed in 1916; two sisters were uncompleted by war’s end). These were the first German battleships to mount 15-inch guns, and they each carried three oil-burning boilers. The remaining 11 boilers were still coal-fired, although oil could be sprayed over the coal to aid combustion. Although neither completed unit was finished in time for Jutland, Baden did have an adventurous career: It set out on 18–19 August 1916 against British coastal targets but was nearly cut off by the Grand Fleet; it sortied in the North Sea two months later, then bombarded Russian shore targets in the Baltic Gulf of Riga in the month of the Russian Revolution (October 1917); and it participated in the fruitless High Seas Fleet sweep toward the Norwegian coast in April 1918. Beached by British crews at the Scapa Flow seppuku, Baden was carefully examined by RN constructors. Its construction was found to be in no significant way superior to contemporary RN battleships. (Baden was expended as a target ship in 1921.)

Italy’s first dreadnought

Italy’s first dreadnought, Dante Alighieri, was completed in 1913. It was the first capital ship with triple main gun turrets (12-inch guns) arranged along the centerline. It was considered the fastest battleship in the world at the time, although its speed, typical for Italian battleships, was gained at the expense of armor. Dante Alighieri participated in only one action during World War I, the bombardment of Austrian-held Durazzo, Albania. Its design, with amidships turrets, precluded any serious modernization, and it was scrapped in 1928. Italy’s two subsequent dreadnought classes, Cavour (Conte di Cavour, Giulio Cesare, and Leonardo da Vinci, completed 1914–1915), and Doria (Andrea Doria and Caio Duilio, completed in 1916 and 1915, respectively) did not participate in World War I. The Italians do have the distinction of being the only naval power to name a battleship after a poet, Dante Alighieri, and an artist, Leonardo da Vinci. (The French did name an armored cruiser after a historian [the Jules Michlet] and a theologian [the Ernst Renan].) Italy also laid down four units of the Caracciolo class, but these first Italian super-dreadnoughts (31,400 tons and 15-inch guns) were never completed, for the same reasons the other naval powers mostly stopped dreadnought construction during World War I: lack of steel and other materials due to their diversion to the construction of submarines, destroyers, and light craft.