Categories
WW2 Soviet Prototypes

Object 217, PPG

Soviet Union (1940) Mobile Machine Gun Nest – 1 prototype

The Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940, more commonly known in the West as the ‘Winter War’, saw many one-off vehicles being designed to help the Soviet Red Army overcome the determined Finnish defenses. Many of these never made it to the front to be tested under fire.

One example of such a unique design was the Object 217, also known as the Podvizhnoye Pulemyotnoye Gnezdo or mobile machine-gun nest.

Background

As the Soviet Red Army set about reorganizing itself in January 1940 due to its ineffectiveness in the opening month of the conflict, many meetings were held to discuss how best to tackle the various obstacles encountered in Finland.

One complaint was the lack of tank/infantry coordination. More often than not, the Soviet tanks would charge ahead and smash through the Finnish lines. The Finns used this to their advantage by allowing the tanks to pass and then reoccupying their positions soon after and shooting at the following infantry. To help counter this, several designs for infantry shields and tank-drawn armored sleds were produced by the various factories of Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg). These allowed for sections of infantry to be towed in relative safety to the Finnish lines in order to secure them before the Finns returned.

Clad in snow-suits and well prepared for the harsh climate a Finnish light machine gun position firing upon advancing Soviet troops at Kollaa. Source:SA-Kuva

However, this was not always successful. Once the Finns understood the method of delivery, they used their valuable anti-tank guns to target the towing tanks, or they adapted their defensive positions in order to provide incoming fire as quickly as possible.

Another solution

Another idea was to design a machine-gun-armed tankette that could support advancing infantry. The already existing T-27 was too tall, too weakly armored, and performed too poorly in the snow. As the fighting was in full swing, a quick, cheap design was needed. The task of designing such a vehicle was given to Special Design Bureau No. 2 of the Leningrad Plant of Experimental Engineering No. 185, also known as the Kirov Plant, under the leadership of Josef Yakovlevich Kotin. Kotin created a team under Leading Engineer L. E. Sychev and given the project designation of ‘Object 217’. It was soon called Podvizhnoye pulemyotnoye gnezdo or mobile machine-gun nest by the team.

The finished Object 217 prototype. Source:- https://i.pinimg.com/

The design team quickly produced technical drawings based around a four-speed motorcycle engine with simple suspension. By the beginning of March, a prototype was ready and sent for factory testing. Another four prototypes were also being constructed for trials. The assessors were initially impressed with the vehicle as it fulfilled all the requirements laid out in the request. Even so, the design had numerous drawbacks that called into question its usefulness.

The two Degtyaryov DT machine guns had limited arcs of fire, the crew positions caused discomfort and fatigue within short periods of time, and the armor was seen as too weak when coupled with the limited mobility. However, none of these deficiencies was the reason for not adopting the machine. On 13th March 1940, the Winter War came to a close and there was no longer a need for such a niche vehicle. As a result, the Armored Directorate of the Red Army canceled the project. All the prototypes were scrapped.

Specifications

Hull

The Object 217 used a single-piece of rolled armored steel to form the main body of the vehicle. To this were welded and riveted the side and rear armor. The designers wanted to minimize the silhouette. To do this, they created an oddly laid out fighting compartment. The two crew members sat with the two access hatches on top of the vehicle open during transportation, but when in combat they would adopt a prone position, lying face down inside. At its maximum height, the Object 217 measured only 55 cm. To allow the crew to see, they were each provided with simple periscope devices that protruded from the roof and covered in an armored box. However, this meant that the two crew members had no visibility to their sides and rear.

The commander was seated on the right side, with the driver on the left side of the vehicle.

A headlight was present on the right-hand side, while a smaller rear light was also present on the left-hand side.

A model of Object 217, showing the layout of the hull. The added side vision slit is not seen in the photo of the real vehicle. Source: https://topwar.ru/

Engine and Transmission

To keep the costs down, a PMZ motorcycle 16 horsepower two-stroke, 2-cylinder, air-cooled petrol engine was used for this vehicle. This allowed for limited self-propulsion which was not an issue, as the deployment of the vehicle involved being towed behind a T-26 until it reached the Finnish defenses and then unhooking itself. The transmission was a three-speed gearbox seated next to the engine. A simple friction clutch system controlled by a set of levers was used to control the movement of the vehicle. The factory tests gave a top road speed of 18.5 km/h and a cross country speed of 7 km/h. Due to the large size of the engine in comparison to the internal space available, it was necessary to create an armored box at the rear of the vehicle with several access panels.

The trials also showed that the Object 217 was capable of climbing 30-35 degree inclines and could clear trenches 1 meter wide. It could also wade through streams and puddles so long as they did not exceed half a meter in depth. How this would have translated to the Karelian Isthmus though is not known. The relatively low ground pressure was ideal for getting across the snow but the varied terrain, especially at the specially selected areas of the Mannerheim Line, would probably be taxing on the vehicle.

The same model, clearly showing the engine box. Source: https://topwar.ru/

Running gear

The Object 217 was given a very simple running gear. This consisted of four large cast spoked road wheels which were fixed to rigid axles. To provide power, a drive wheel, about half the size of the road wheels, was installed at the rear. The front road wheels could also turn like the wheels on a car, bending the track in order to allow the vehicle to steer, in a similar style to the later Light Tank Mk VII Tetrarch. To lower the amount of dust and snow thrown up by the tracks, the front and rear had protruding fenders.

The lack of suspension was one of the biggest drawbacks to the design. It put a considerable strain upon the crew, especially under combat conditions that required them to lie down. After only a short while, the assessors reported fatigue which would only make the combat effectiveness of the vehicle worse.

Armor Protection

For the type of vehicle and time, the Object 217 boasted an acceptable armor layout. The front consisted of a rolled single piece of armored plate measuring 20 mm in thickness. The sides were 10 mm thick rolled single pieces that were mainly welded upon the body, with a few rivets in the rear of the vehicle to help strengthen it. The roof and underside were 8 mm thick rolled armored plates. The advanced use of single rolled pieces of armored plate coupled with a heavy reliance on welding gave it a great amount of protection against small arms and shell fragments.

The assessors did express concern about the armor’s ability to withstand anti-tank gunfire or near hits by artillery but this was less about the armor and more about how the limited mobility meant an overreliance upon the armor for protection.

An original document showing two views of the Object 217 vehicle. The upper photograph is already known, but the lower one shows the hatches open, giving information about the upper part of the vehicles. Source: Radikal.ru

Armament

The original directive stipulated that the vehicle had to be armed with a machine gun. This was due to its main task being to keep the Finnish defenders suppressed. The design team added two Degtyaryov DT machine guns in ball mounts which would be aimed using the attached sights. These allowed for 20 degrees of travel in all directions, but this was limited more due to ergonomics within the hull rather than the installations themselves. The sides of the hull contained racks for 25 pan-type magazines, giving a total ammunition amount of 1,575 rounds per gun. In order to allow the crew to maintain operation without the need to clear spent shell casings, each gun mount had a specially designed bag that connected to the side ejection port.

Analysis of possible use

It is not sure how Object 217 would be deployed but some speculations can be made based upon the tactics used by the Soviets during the second offensive phase of the Winter War.

Possibly, after a heavy artillery bombardment upon a section of the Finnish line, a squadron of 12 T-26s would set off, 2 towing Object 217s and 4 towing Sokolov sleds (each carrying 5 Soviet soldiers). As the tanks neared the line, they detached the tow cables and the soldiers advanced to the trenches. The Object 217s would take positions on the flanks, suppressing the Finnish defenders. With these types of tactics, which were deployed during the second offensive phase, but with T-26s taking the role that the Object 217s would have played, it would allow for more tanks to be pushed into the breakthrough and still have the Infantry secure the position. The vehicles could then use their own power to cross the trenches and be ready for any Finnish counterattack.

Conclusion

The Object 217 was a unique vehicle designed for a unique situation. As the Soviet advance stalled by the indefatigable Finnish defense in December 1939, the Soviet Red Army needed any solution to breakthrough. The solution of an armored machine gun position attached to the infantry was a quick fix as it negated a lengthy rework of the current Soviet tactics. The final vehicle produced, however, was inherently flawed as a design. With such extremely limited visibility and a very uncomfortable fighting position for the crew its combat potential was small. The crew would become rapidly tired and the mobile and adaptable Finns would no doubt have quickly learned of its serious limitation and come up with tactics to exploit its weaknesses using their mobility to get around it. With the end of the Winter War the serious deficiencies of the design were never shown by actual combat but the fact that this design was not repeated again is perhaps the strongest indication that this unique vehicle was not an effective solution to breaching well prepared enemy defences. To do that would rely on a far better use of coordinated operations and flexible vehicles supported by artillery – something the Soviets repeatedly failed to manage during the Winter War.

The very small Object 217 mobile machine gun nest was a very peculiar vehicle, very low, with the engine in a small box at the rear. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Sources

Komolyets, Maxim. Tanks in the Winter War: 1939 – 1940 (Operations: Scandinavia 1939) (Leandoer and Ekholm (April 14, 2009))
https://warspot.ru/2973-proekt-217-mobilnaya-ambrazura
https://topwar.ru/105675-podvizhnoe-pulemetnoe-gnezdo-tanketka-obekt-217.html

Categories
WW2 Dutch AT Weapons WW2 German AT Weapons WW2 Hungarian AT Weapons WW2 Italian AT Weapons WW2 Swiss AT Weapons

Solothurn S 18-1000

Switzerland (1939)
Anti-Tank Rifle – around 1,000 produced

The Solothurn S 18-1000 was a Swiss-built 20 mm Anti-Tank rifle which was an upgraded version of the earlier S 18-100. It saw service in both the Axis and Allied forces and was deployed in many theatres of operations through the war. Despite its weight and size, it was appreciated by the troops that used it.

An S 18-154. Source: Sa Kuva

Design and Development

When the Treaty of Versaille was signed on 28th June 1919, the once magnificent German arms industry found itself under considerable restrictions. One of these restrictions was on the development of large caliber weapons capable of taking out tanks, similar to the TankGewehr M1918 developed by Mauser during the First World War.
To bypass these restrictions, Rheinmetall set up a subsidiary in Switzerland in 1929, Waffenfabrik Solothurn. This meant that German engineers could design, test and build weapons without the worry of the victorious Allied powers faulting on Germany for not holding to the Versailles Treaty. In 1930, they had developed the 20×138mmB cartridge or ‘Short Solothurn’, which was one of the most powerful 20 mm rounds in existence at the time and remained in use until the early 1950s. Soon after the development of the 20 mm cartridge, the Solothurn ST-5 anti-aircraft gun was produced and, from here, Solothurn started a journey that saw the development of many weapons, all using the 20 mm Solothurn round. The first foray into anti-tank weapons was the 2 cm Tankbuchse S 5-100 in 1932, which was an offshoot of the ST-5 and was impractical for its intended use, which meant it was not fully developed. In 1933, development started on a more practical anti-tank weapon, the S 18-100. This 44 kg, bull-pup, hard-hitting gun was placed on the export market in 1934 and was soon picked up by Italy, Hungary, and the Netherlands to name but a few.
It was decided in the late 1930s that the S 18-100 series needed a more substantial upgrade (previously the S18-100 saw minor improvements in the S 18-150, S 18-154 and S 18-500). Using the improved 20×138mmB cartridge, also known as the ‘Long Solothurn’, and adding a longer barrel, a ‘harmonica’ style muzzle break, improved action and some other minor modifications, a newer, more hard-hitting version of the Solothurn was created. The weapon worked on a short recoil system, meaning that the barrel moved slightly backward when fired. Because of the large recoil spring, it required a ratchet crank in order to pull the bolt back to set it up for operations. Once the bolt was pulled back, a magazine could then be loaded. When fired, the barrel recoiled, moving the attached rotary bolt and unlocking the bolt which then ejected the spent casing. The bolt is then driven forward by the large spring, loading a fresh cartridge from the magazine. Like many anti-tank rifles of the time, it came with an integrated bipod, which allowed for some recoil absorption, and a single adjustable monopod to the rear just ahead of the cushioned butt plate. These modifications increased the weight from a substantial 45 kg to a hefty 53 kg and saw Solothurn develop the SO9 carriage for it. This was a simple two-wheeled carriage which had space for two ammunition boxes and allowed for free traverse. It also had the ability to change the elevation through a screw. The split trails could be flipped forward and locked together to allow the gun team to move the gun with ease to a new position.

A brochure picture of a Swiss soldier firing an S 18-1000 on the SO 9 carriage. Source:- Axishistory
During Solothurn’s trials in 1939, it performed quite respectfully. The much improved ‘Long Solothurn’ round coupled with the 144.78mm (57 inch) long barrel gave it a muzzle velocity of 910 m/s and could penetrate 35 mm of armor plate at 300 meters.

On the Market

After trials, Solothurn approved the S 18-1000 for production. The design of the weapon, alongside its impressive performance, saw it gain a lot of attraction on the international market.

A fully kitted out S 18-1000. Source:- MurphyAuctions
The first nation to acquire the S 18-1000 for service was the Swiss Army, which placed an initial order for 60. These were designated Tankbüchse Solo 40 and were delivered in the first quarter of 1940. Another 33 were ordered as the Swiss Army was impressed by its capabilities, bringing the total in Swiss use to 93. One rifle was installed to the prototype Type 41 Patrol Boat Uri.
The Netherlands had bought six S 18-15 in 1937 for trials but rejected them upon seeing the initial results for the S18-1000. A definitive order for 662 S18-1000s was placed in late 1938, divided as 340 for the Royal Netherlands Army (Koninklijke Landmacht) and 322 for the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger; KNIL). By the time of the German invasion in May 1940, 125 Dutch Army and 72 KNIL rifles had been delivered.
The Italians also looked at the S 18-1000 after rejecting the S 18-100 in 1934. They placed initial orders in 1939 for trials and the first pieces arrived in early 1940 being designated Carabina “S”. At the conclusion of the trials, the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) wanted to equip every infantry battalion with 6 pieces. It is unknown how many were delivered to the Italians, but it is thought to be around 578 of the estimated 1,131 required. The main reason for the lack of deliveries was that Switzerland was placing restrictions on the exportation of war materials to any belligerent nation in 1940.
With Europe being engulfed by war, Sweden started to look towards protecting itself. In 1940, it made inquiries to purchase 480 S 18-1000s. These were approved as Sweden was a neutral country and thus not subjected to Switzerland’s restrictions. Using balance of trade payments with Germany for steel, the rifles arrived between 1940-1941 and were designated 20 mm pansarvärnskanon m/1939.
Hungary had purchased the S 18-100 in 1935 and were producing their own licensed variant, the 36M 20mm Nehézpuska. After the Slovak–Hungarian War, they realized that the 36M was in need of upgrading and purchased around 50 (sources vary) of the new S 18-1000 in early 1940, but as restrictions became tighter, they were unable to purchase more and so production continued on the 36M until 1943.
The US Army had concluded in the mid-1930s that the .50 M2 Heavy Barrel (HB) machine gun would be adopted as the official light anti-tank gun and general vehicle-mounted machine gun. However, observations made during the Spanish Civil War suggested that the .50 might not be sufficient in future conflicts as an anti-tank weapon, so work was put towards creating an anti-tank gun, the 37 mm Gun M3. While the infantry branch championed such a move, the cavalry branch and US Marine Corps still expressed interest in a light anti-mechanization weapon. To this end, the Ordnance Department ordered two S 18-100 rifles in 1939, along with 2,000 rounds of ammunition for trails by the Infantry and Cavalry Boards at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. The results of the trials were unsatisfactory, but as the trials were coming to a close, the S 18-1000 was ready, and so, an example was obtained for testing. Arriving in April 1940, it performed better than its predecessor and was passed on for further trials by both the Infantry and Cavalry boards. The S 18-1000 was seen as superior in performance to the M2 machine gun, so an order was placed with Solothurn for a further 50 models with 50,000 rounds of ammunition which would be standardized as the 20 mm Automatic Gun T3. During negotiations with Solothurn though, things turned difficult. This was down to Solothurn’s parent company – Rheinmetall – specifically forbidding the sale of Solothurn’s anti-tank rifles to any country without its approval, and so, the acquisition was abandoned.

A picture showing the US Army trial of the Solothurn at Aberdeen Proving Ground on 9 April 1940. Source: Reddit
Finland was attempting to modernize its military inventory in the run-up to the Winter War of November 1939. As part of this, one S 18-1000 was purchased by the Puolustusministeriö (Ministry of Defence) in August 1939 (one of the first models as it had the serial number of 4 stamped upon it) for testing. Unfortunately, though, any chance of purchasing more was rendered difficult due to the Soviet-German Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which saw Germany restrict arms shipments to Finland through its territory.

Swedish presentation of the Solothurn S18-1000 (or 20 mm pkvan m/39) with characteristics

Solothurn at War

When the German military crossed the Polish border on the morning of 1st September 1939, the nations of Europe realized that another great war was unavoidable. The armies mobilized against the threats and so the Solothurn S 18-1000 was to be put to the test.
After Poland fell to the joint German-Soviet invasion, the world expected a bloodbath in the West between the Anglo-French alliance and Germany, but outside a few skirmishes on the border nothing occurred for eight months in what became known as the ‘Phoney War’.
It is not known if the single S 18-1000 that Finland acquired before the outbreak of the Winter War was ever issued to combat troops and so it is thought that the S 18-1000s baptism of fire occurred during the German invasion of the Netherlands. The Germans launched their offensive against the Western allies on the morning of 10th May 1940. The 4th Panzer Division was given orders to secure the strategically important Dutch city of Maastricht. The city contained vital bridges over the Maas River, as well as sat to the north of the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael. The Dutch had been on alert since 7th May and troops had been deployed to areas the General Staff felt were vital to the German line of attack. Sergeant Van der Sande was in command of an anti-tank rifle section containing two S 18-1000s and was ordered to deploy his weapons near the two bridges of Wilhelminabrug and Sint Servaasbrug and delay any German advance. At 05:15 on the morning of the 10th May, the first German vehicles were spotted by der Sande’s section and the two anti-tank gunners, Rietveld and Plusjé, prepared their weapons. The order to fire was given and within minutes 2 armored cars were out of action and a third was severely crippled. The Germans reacted by bringing up a 37 mm anti-tank gun and firing at the defensive position forcing the surviving Dutchmen to retreat across the river. The action helped delay the German vanguard enough that the two bridges were blown at 06:00.
Sergeant Sande and his men were not the only group of Dutchmen with Solothurns that were doing their part to delay the advance. A kilometer north of the Wilhelminabrug Bridge was the railway bridge and another strategic objective for the Germans. A platoon of 35 Dutch soldiers, with a pair of Solothurns, held their position against a mainly infantry assault. Soon the lieutenant ordered a withdrawal across the bridge and within moments the bridge was blown. However, the action did not stop there. The German infantry force soon received reinforcements and attempted to secure the bridge in order to effect repairs. Two armored cars attempted to cross the river but were destroyed by the Solothurns. A Panzer I was also disabled as it went to the edge of the riverbank to provide suppressive fire. The fighting became intense and more armor was brought forward, including a handful of Panzerjäger I tank destroyers (two were subsequently knocked out by the anti-tank rifles) and soon the Dutch found themselves overwhelmed. The Battle of Maastricht ended in the early afternoon with a ceasefire, but despite the Dutch loosing, their bravery and the hard-hitting power of the Solothurns accounted for several German AFVs.
The German Army is known to have acquired a number of Solothurn S-18 rifles, including the 1000 model, and deployed them alongside their own anti-tank rifles. What is not know is exactly how many or their exact deployment. The table of organization and equipment for a German Infantry division in 1940 put the complement of ATRs at 108 per Infantry Division with each of the 36 Rifle Companies containing an anti-tank rifle section of 3 rifles, the most numerous being the Panzerbüchse 39. Against the main French tanks, Hotchkiss H35 and Renault R35, any anti-tank rifle would be effectively useless except at extremely close ranges.

An S 18-1000 mounted on an Sd.Kfz. 250. Source: Reddit

A propaganda picture of Italian Bersaglieri manning a “36M Fucile Contracarro da 20-mm Solothurn” in the North African desert. Source: Axishistory
The next known usages of the Solothurn S 18-1000 was by the Italians in the Desert Campaign. Italy received its first batch of 100 Solothurn S 18-1000s in late 1940 and immediately shipped them to their troops serving in the African desert. It was intended to arm every Italian division with an anti-tank company that contained 3 platoons of 4 Solothurns each, but this was not possible, so the S 18-1000s were given to elite units like the Bersaglieri (an Italian light infantry unit) and Compagnie Auto-Avio-Sahariane (Auto-Saharan Companies, long range desert units). More Solothurns started to arrive at the end of 1941/early 1942 and were assigned on the basis of 9 per Bersaglieri to fit in with their intended role as light infantry. The hard-hitting power, coupled with their small silhouette, meant that the weapon could be effectively used against the Commonwealth forces and their lightly armored tanks such as the Light Tank Mk.VI and Cruiser Mk.IV. The weapon also became popular with the Compagnie Auto-Avio-Sahariane, or Auto-Saharan Companies, which were the Italian version of the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). When the Camionetta Desertica SPA-Viberti AS.42 arrived in September 1942, several were equipped with the S 18-1000 to help in the company’s mission of hunting down the LRDG. In this role, the S 18-1000 succeeded, as the LRDG operated in similarly open-topped and lightly armored four-wheel vehicles.

An AS.42 somewhere in the Libyan desert, 1942. Source:- tapatalk.com
Another Italian use of the S 18-1000 that is often forgotten is the L3 cc (controcarro or anti-tank). Using the Carro Veloce L3/35 light tank as a base, the twin 8mm Bredas were replaced with the Solothurn. An exact number of how many were produced is not known, but it was not many and they arrived in Libya in late 1942. They performed adequately in the Axis retreat through Africa and some participated in the famous Battle of Kasserine Pass.

An abandoned L3 cc. Source:- tapatalk.com
As the weapon was deployed to Italian frontline units in Africa, it was inevitable that some would fall into the hands of the Commonwealth forces they were fighting against. The Australian 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment had one of its reserve batteries equipped with a number of captured Solothurns during the Syria–Lebanon Campaign. How widespread it was among other Commonwealth units is not known, but it can be speculated that several Solothurns would have been repurposed.
It is also alleged that some S 18-1000s of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army fell into the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army who found them more reliable and effective than their own Type 97 anti-tank rifle and used them until they ran out of ammunition.

End of Life

With the rifle weighing 53.5 kg/118 lb empty (54.7 kg/120.6 lb with 10 round magazine attached), as well as the increasing amount of armor being put onto AFV, it meant that the Solothurn was losing its place on the battlefield. As the war raged on the Solothurn was seen less and less and it is believed that the last combat uses of the S 18-1000 were by Italian forces of the National Republican Army as they fought frantically against the Allied advance. A select fire version was produced in 1942, designated the S 18-1100 ‘Universalwaffe’ (universal weapon) and was sold with a specialized AA mount (SO 11) to be able to engage aircraft, as well as the SO 9 carriage for use against AFVs. Not many, a few hundred, of these were produced until production was stopped at the end of 1942/early 1943.

The S 18-1100 on the SO 11 carriage from a Solothurn brochure. Source:- Axishistory
After the war, hundreds of S 18-1000s were put into the lucrative US gun market where they were sold off to gun collectors and enthusiasts. Today it is a rare find but there is still a number of them in the hands of collectors and occasionally they may be found upon the firing ranges.

A post-war advert with an embellished background of the S18-1000. Source:- 2cm flak

Conclusion

Anti-Tank Rifles are often confused with Anti-Tank Guns, both in nomenclature and usage. ATRs are designed to allow the standard infantry unit to disable armored fighting vehicles and work in conjunction with other weapons, like dedicated anti-tank guns. When ATRs were developed during the interwar period, they were effective if albeit bulky but they offered a cheap and more mobile alternative than anti-tank artillery.
The Solothurn S 18-1000 could be called the pinnacle of anti-tank rifles. The ‘Long Solothurn’ round allowed it to keep up with armored development until 1942 but it quickly dropped off when the Allies started to deploy vehicles like the M3 Grant/Lee and M4 Sherman medium tanks in large numbers. The two biggest drawbacks to the S 18-1000 were its weight and its complicated system which meant that misuse or lack of attention could damage the weapon easily. With the heavy deployment of shaped charges and rocket-propelled grenades in 1943, the infantry now had a more effective and lightweight anti-tank weapon that was more viable than the ATRs of the previous few years. The Solothurn, along with its brothers, were forced in obsolescence and became curiosities.

Sources

Zaloga, Steven. The Anti-Tank Rifle, Osprey Publishing, 2018
Weeks, John. Men Against Tanks: History of Anti-tank Warfare, David & Charles, 1975
Axishistory.com
Forgottenweapons.com



Illustration of the Solothurn S 18-1000 made by Yuvnashva Sharma. Funded by our Patreon campaign.

Tanks Encyclopedia Magazine, #3

Tanks Encyclopedia Magazine, #1 Republished

The first issue of the Tank Encyclopedia Magazine has been remastered and rereleased. It covers vehicles ranging from the French WWI Frot-Turmel-Laffly Armoured Road Roller up to the Salvadoran Cold War Marenco M114 converted vehicles. The star of this issue is a full article on the Improved Protection version of the famous M1 Abrams – the M1IP.

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Categories
AT Weapons WW2 British AT Weapons

Rifle, Anti-Tank, .55in, Boys "Boys Anti-Tank Rifle"

United Kingdom (1934)
Antitank Rifle – 114,081 Built

The Boys Anti-Tank Rifle was part of Britain’s interwar development of weapons designed to take on tanks. While the artillery got the 2 pounder, a cheaper, lighter alternative was needed for the Infantry to help deal with tanks and other armored vehicles. Out of this necessity came the Rifle, Anti-Tank, .55in, Boys.

A Boys Mk.1. Source: Wikimedia

Design and Development

The British Army had shown interest in an anti-tank rifle during the First World War, mainly that designed by famous gun designer Philip Thomas Godsal. However, due to the lack of a German tank threat, with those that did appear easily dealt with by artillery or other means, no further development past prototype stage was taken.
In 1934, the Small Arms Committee started a programme for an anti-tank rifle to be used at platoon level with the ability to penetrate 16mm of armor at 100 yards (91 meters). The work was led by Captain Henry C. Boys, Assistant Superintendent of Design at the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield. The team looked at the Polish Karabin przeciwpancerny wzór 35 anti-tank rifle and used its design as inspiration for their own project.
From this influence they built, like many other anti-tank rifles of the time, a large-scale bolt action rifle. It was designed to take a modified .50 BMG cartridge but, after initial trials, the bullet was increased to a .55 calibre. However, unlike many of its counterparts, it was fed from a top loading magazine with the spent cases being ejected down. Due to this, the sights were put onto the left-hand side. To help reduce the effect of recoil, a circular muzzle break with three slots on its circumference at sixty degree spacing was added. The whole barrel and receiver were mounted on a slide that pushed against a large spring when the weapon was fired. There was also a walnut cheek-piece and the butt was curved and padded to allow for better control of the weapon. It was also mounted onto a unique looking T-shaped monopod that allowed for a stable firing platform.

A British soldier on Salisbury Plain, 1939. You can see the unique Boys monopod. Source: Imperial War Museum
To give it a high velocity in order to penetrate armor, the barrel was 910mm long and had 7 grooves. This allowed the weapon to achieve a velocity of 802 meters per second, and was highly accurate up to a range of 300 yards (274 meters).
The prototype was given the name ‘Stanchion’ and it was tested in early 1936, the original .50 BMG modified cartridge being described as having “a disappointing armor-piercing performance”. This led Captain Boys to redesign the round, increasing it to .55 caliber. The bullet was 926 gr. hardened steel core bullet with a lead sleeve and a steel jacket. This was then placed into a .50 BMG case that had an enlarged neck for the .55 round and a belt added near the base to stop it from being chambered into .50 caliber weapons. This allowed for a penetration performance of 23.2 mm of armor at 100 yards, this was a significant increase over the specifications of the initial requirements. The trials continued throughout 1936 and in November 1937 the ‘Stanchion’ was accepted for service. Unfortunately, Captain Boys died only days before and so the rifle was renamed Boys in his honor.

Close up of the sight and muzzle break on the Mk 1 Boys. Source: Wikimedia

Modifications and Upgrades

It was soon noticed that the .55 Boys cartridge was insufficient to the task and a redesign was ordered. The team reduced the weight of the bullet itself and increased the propellant, making a lighter but faster bullet. This was adopted into service as the Mk.II bullet in June 1939 and the Mk.I bullet was declared obsolete in December of that year. In 1942, an Armoured Piercing Composite Rigid (APCR) was developed after British engineers had examined captured German 7.92×94mm Patronen. It used a tungsten carbide core with an aluminum jacket. This design improved muzzle velocity to 944 m/s and allowed it to penetrate 20mm at 300 yards, but due to the development and deployment of more effective anti-tank weapons, like the PIAT, this cartridge was never officially adopted.

A Boys mk.II cartridge (left) versus a .50 BMG cartridge. Source: Wikimedia
It wasn’t just the cartridge that went through upgrades but the rifle itself.
Due to the outbreak of war, the need for the Boys AT rifle was increased and soon the Canadian company, John Inglis and Company, was producing the Boys (alongside the many other weapons it was producing for the Commonwealth war effort). It was during the production here that the engineer team took it upon themselves to make some modifications. The most noticeable is the muzzle brake, often referred to as the harmonica. It was a rectangular block with the rear-ward slanting gas vents directed horizontally either side. It has been theorized that it came about as a result of US Army testing with the Solothurn S 18-1000. This helped with the recoil but more importantly, it reduced the amount of debris that was thrown up (the original muzzle brake pushed the blast downwards as well as upwards and to the sides), thus not giving away the position of the gun. The other advantage was it was of simple design and didn’t require a lot of maintenance, unlike the original brake, that needed dissembling and oiling when not in use. Another modification was the replacement of the monopod with a Bren gun bipod, which helped with production. It also received much simpler fixed sights and the butt padding was reinforced with rubber. These modifications were designated Mk 1* and were officially adopted in 1942, with new rifles being made to this specification, and some original marks being upgraded.

A Mk 1* Boys. Notice the muzzle brake and bipod. Source: acant.org.au
In mid-1942, in order to give Airborne forces some hard-hitting firepower, a lighter and shorter version of the Boys was developed. It used the Mk 1* as a base but shortened the barrel to only 762 mm and got rid of the muzzle break. However, this had the negative effect of increased report and recoil, also less penetration. Numerous parts were made from aluminum to help save on weight. The tradeoff was that these pieces were softer and thus more prone to bending and breaking. The butt padding was also filled with feathers and the bipod was made of lighter metals. There is also conflicting evidence that it was squeeze-bore, using a necked down .55 calibre case for a .303 calibre armor piercing bullet. This was to help save on weight for the airborne troops but still give a high velocity and armor penetration, however, this is countered by some reports stating that the round was solely designed as a training device, as this allowed the Boys to be used on all standard .303 ranges. Very few were produced and the project was canceled in 1943 when the Boys was declared obsolete.
Besides these three official models of the Boys, there were also experiments and other modifications taken. Two Boys Mk Is were produced in a 13.2 calibre (the same calibre as the Tankgewehr of 1918). It has been suggested that this was part of an experiment to give bombers like the Lancaster a hard-hitting defensive gun against frontally-armored German fighters. However, this has been argued against due to the impracticality of having a single-shot gun for aircraft defense. Ian Skennerton mentions in his book, “The Lee-Enfield Story”, that a smoothbore 13.2mm Boys was tested in mid-1945 and it is theorised that it was for testing a sabot round.
Another interesting modification came about during the US Army’s sniping trials. Taking the Canadian produced Mk 1*, it was converted to fire .50 BMG, the barrel was replaced with a M2 Browning barrel and a telescopic sight was fitted. It was reported that this gave it extreme accuracy at over 1,000 yards (914 meters) and some were even issued to combat units.
By the end of 1943, when the weapon ceased production, a total of 114,081 Boys of all marks had been produced.

Baptism of Fire – In Finnish Service

The Boys would see its baptism of fire with Finland during the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish Winter War. During the closing weeks of 1939, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland shocked the world and many gave the Finns only a few weeks before they capitulated. Despite the overwhelming odds, the dogged defence of the Finns had stalled the Soviet advance and allowed for military aid to reach the frontlines. Finland was lacking in many modern arms, including anti-tank weaponry and asked any nation for help. The United Kingdom offered to donate 100 of its Boys to the Finnish cause. These arrived in January 1940 and 30 were given to the Swedish Volunteer Corps and the other 70 deployed on the Karelian Isthmus. The weapon was extremely effective at penetrating the armor of the Soviet BT and T-26 tanks but the Finns found that they needed to aim for the crew positions in order to get the best use out of the gun. Out of the 100 in service, only 6 were lost in combat.

Two Swedish Volunteers in early 1940 in Finland carrying Mk 1 Boys. Source:Wikimedia
During the Interim Peace (1940-41), the Finns acquired another 100 Boys from the British and bought 200 more from the Germans (who had captured a large amount from retreating forces during the Battle of France). Given the official designation 14mm pst kiv/37 (Panssarintorjuntakivääri) it was issued at a rate of 4 guns per company and were used throughout the Finnish forces until being replaced by the Lahti L-39. During this part of the war, the Boys had lost its edge and due to the upgrading of Soviet tanks it was now essentially ineffective as an anti-tank weapon and was soon issued to coastal troops or even put into storage. The Finns did find that the gun was good at engaging bunkers and other hardpoints at long range but, due to the muzzle flash, the manuals stressed the need to fire and move. These guns were kept on the official reserve lists until 1956 when the vast majority were sold off to the United States.

British and Commonwealth Service

The Boys was adopted into service by the British Army in 1937 as a Platoon level anti-tank weapon. Soon afterwards it was decided that it would be deployed as a section level weapon. However, by the outbreak of war, the Rifle platoons still only had one Boys per Platoon but the Mechanised Platoons had 4 per platoon, mounted in Universal Carriers.
The British forces employed over 58,000 of the Boys during the Second World War. During the early campaigns, like Norway and France, the Boys performed adequately against the thinly armored Panzer I, II and IIIs. The first German tanks knocked out by British troops were by a Boys during the Norwegian campaign. Sergeant Major John Sheppard of the 1/5th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment (TA) was deployed near the village of Tretten to help protect the right flank when three German Panzers approached his position. Taking up the Platoon’s Boys, which he had never used before, Sheppard fired three rounds into each tank, knocking out two of them and making the rest third retreat. For his actions that day, which helped keep the right flank of the British position solid, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Soldiers of the Rifle Brigade exercising with a Boys in 1939 before the outbreak of war. Source:Imperial War Museum
However, the Boys didn’t garner much favour with the troops, mainly due to its weight (weighing 16kg unloaded, it was roughly the same as a Vickers Machine Gun) and because of its frightful recoil. Anti-tank rifles work by hitting critical parts of the tank which are thus disabled. They do not have any explosive filler to destroy a tank through explosive like anti-tank guns. This meant a tank could take several hits before stopping (if it stopped at all), thus demoralising troops. During the evacuation of Dunkirk, the heavy rifle was left in large numbers upon the beaches.
During the reorganisation in 1941, the Boys was issued at 1 per section for Rifle platoons. Many were mounted on the Universal Carrier in a primitive form of tank destroyer (despite regulations stating that all weapons should be dismounted from the Carrier before use). The weapon also saw mounting upon the Morris CS9 Light Armored Car and Morris Light Reconnaissance Car, Chevrolet WB, the Lanchester 4×2 and 6×4 armored cars, the Humber Light Reconnaissance Car, Marmon-Herrington MKII Armoured Car, and even the World War I-vintage Rolls Royce Armoured Cars.

A Univeral Carrier armed with a Boys. This carrier is painted to represent an ‘enemy’ tank during an anti-invasion exercise in the South of England, 15 June 1941. Source: Imperial War Museum

A pair of Humber Mk III Light Reconnaissance Cars. These vehicles were armed with Bren Guns and Boys Anti-Tank Rifle. Source: Imperial War Museum

Source: DesertRats.com
It was also given to the reformed armies of the Governments in Exile, like Poland, to give them some form of anti-tank protection. These exiled armies were organised along similar lines to the British Army and so the Boys saw issue at platoon level and in similar fashion to the British, it would be replaced in 1943-44 by other more effective infantry mobile anti-tank weapons.

Members of the Polish Armed Forces in the West manning an improvised Armoured Train in Scotland, 1941. These trains were armed with a 6 pounder gun, two Boys anti-tank rifles and six Bren machine guns. Source: Imperial War Museum
The next action for the Boys with the British was during the North African desert fighting. It fared very well against the Italian tanks. Only against the Fiat M13/40, with its 30mm frontal armor, did it struggle. However, the poor tactical handling of the Italian forces meant that it wasn’t really an issue. The Germans had learned the lessons from their 1940 campaigns and had uparmored their Panzers in order to combat the Allied anti-tank capabilities. In the aftermath of Operation Crusader, the British forces conducted a study in which they concluded that no Boys had successfully engaged a tank.
It was the ineffectiveness against newer tanks that saw the Boys being utilised in other roles by the British. For example it was used against fortified positions, especially during the closing stages of the Desert Campaign and the Dieppe Raid. It was declared obsolete by the the end of 1943 and the new platoon level anti-tank weapon would be the PIAT. But the Boys would continue to be kept in the companies of the army for use in an anti-material role.
While its usefulness on the European Front was waning, on the Far Eastern front it remained relevant. Japanese armor was relatively light (the Type 95 had a top thickness of 16mm and the Type 97 30mm) and so easily fell prey to the Boys. The first Japanese tank disabled by Commonwealth forces was a Type 95 Ha-Go at Ahioma in August 1942. Australian forces had used their Boys to bring the tank to a halt and force a surrender. The men of the 1/14th Punjabi Regiment, British Indian Army used their Boys to knock out several Japanese tanks and blunt the assault against their positions in Malaya 1942.

Other usage


A German soldier with a Boys anti-tank Rifle. Source: Axishistory
As mentioned above, the Germans had acquired a large amount of Boys rifles from the retreating British forces in France 1940. These were then redistributed to Static units and other lower tier units for defensive and training works. It was designated the 13,9 mm Panzerabwehrbüchse 782(englisch).

A German-produced pamphlet on the Boys
The United States received 771 Boys Mk.1* from Canada. Some of these were used in the sniper trials as mentioned above. Others were given to the newly formed Ranger battalions, 20 per battalion, but there is no record of their deployment in combat. US Marine Corps “Raiders” used the Boys on their special operations in the Pacific. The most famous use came during the Raid on Makin Island. Two flying boats attempted to land on the lagoon with reinforcements for the Japanese garrison there only to find themselves under fire from a pair of Boys. One was set on fire soon after landing, the other attempted to take off but was so riddled with Boys rounds that no sooner had it left the water than it plunged back in, breaking up. One of the last uses of the Boys came from the Americans.

Members of the United States Marine Corps Raiders manning a Boys during a training exercise in 1943. Source: ibiblio.org
The Soviets received 3,200 of the Boys through the Lend Lease programme. The vast majority of these were deployed with the Universal Carrier and were seen as a vehicle armament, used for engaging hardpoints and soft-skinned vehicles rather than a dedicated anti-tank weapon (they employed their own anti-tank rifles for that). They were also sent to fronts where tanks were less common, like Murmansk, and also to training units. In the run-up to the 1943 Summer campaign, the Soviets requested ‘no less than 500 Universal APCs with a 13.5mm Boys AT rifle.’ Generally, the weapon was much liked by the Soviet soldier, it was seen as more reliable and effective than their own PTRD-41.

A Universal Carrier armed with a Boys in Soviet service. Source: WarThunder Forums
Another user of the Boys was the Republic of China. 6,129 Mk.1* were sent as part of the aid from the Allies in 1942/43. The Chinese utilised the rifle to good effect in ambushes, as showed by the Special Anti-Tank Company of the 85th Army, which used their Boys to knock out two Japanese tanks, and force the rest of the column to retreat in Zhong Yangdian, April 1945. However, they disliked the weight and preferred the more versatile American Bazooka. This meant many of those Boys sent were never used on the frontline. Some of these fell into the hands of the Communist Chinese forces in the ensuing Chinese Civil War, but it is unclear if they were used.

A group of Chinese Nationalist Soldiers practicing with a Boys Anti-Tank rifle. Source: Twitter
Portugal also bought some Boys from Britain during the early stages of the war to help with their shortage of anti-tank weaponry. However, the vast majority didn’t get out of storage due to lack of need and reports of poor performance. Some were sent to Portuguese possessions, such as Macau, in case Japan didn’t respect their neutrality.
An unspecified number of Boys were supplied to the Philippines for their resistance against the Japanese occupation. These saw use similar to how the Chinese deployed them, in ambush positions to take out the thin-skinned Japanese tanks. After the liberation of the Philippines, these rifles were then used during the Hukbalahap Rebellion and by Filipino forces in the Korean War.

Post-WWII use

During the Korean War, the United States Army saw there was a need for a long-range, heavy calibre rifle and Ralph Walker of Selma Alabama converted several Boys to .50 using M2 barrels (similar to their sniper trials during the Second World War) and attaching telescopic sights to them. These were then given to special sniper teams to effectively engaged Chinese and North Korean forces up to 1100 yards away (1005 meters).
Some of these Communist Chinese Boys are suspected to have been sold to Congolese rebels during the Congo Crisis in 1964-65. However, how many and how they were used is indeterminable. Same goes for the Italians during the Second World War, who had acquired an unknown number during the early stages of the Desert Campaign but how they were utilised is not known. There are reports of the Boys having been supplied to members of the Hellenic Army during the initial stages of the Italian invasion of Greece, with some still being in service during the Greek Civil War.
Some were also sold to the Republic of Ireland to help supplement their military forces during the Second World War (known as the Emergency) but, like many other smaller forces, their distribution is unknown. In connection to the Irish Boys, the Official Irish Republican Army is known to have possessed one which they used during an attack on HMS Brave Borderer in September 1965, causing severe damage to one of its turbines.

Irish troops unpacking a Boys Anti-Tank Rifle. Source: Forgotten Weapons
A small, unknown amount was also in use by Jewish Insurgents and later by Israeli Forces in the post-war years.

Israeli troops with a Boys preparing for Operation Horev, 1949. Source: Wikimedia

Performance

The Boys has somewhat of a mixed reputation. Within popular history culture, it is normally maligned as a useless deadweight upon the infantryman. Within academic circles, it is highlighted to have been useful but was obsolete by the time the war was underway. Both sides have valid points to their arguments.
The Boys was noted for its ferocious recoil, with many British soldiers complaining of headaches, bruised or even broken shoulders. This isn’t uncommon though for large caliber anti-tank rifles of the time and it was noted by official papers that the majority of these injuries could be avoided if the individual held the weapon in the correct manner. The dangerous noise level emitted from the gun was recognised by those higher up and regulations stipulated that the weapon must not be fired without ear protection (the first weapon of the British army with mandatory ear protection). Despite this, it still earned a horrible reputation, earning many nicknames like ‘Elephant Gun’ or ‘Charlie the Bastard’. The penetration certainly wasn’t poor. With a muzzle velocity of 884 m/s, the Boys was able to penetrate up to 23.2mm of armor at 100 yards. However, this was the lowest penetration compared to its contemporaries.
During the Winter War, the weapon was at its most effective. The light skinned T-26s and BT-7 tanks which made up the bulk of the Soviet tank arm were vulnerable to the Boys even at ranges up to 400 meters. Finnish tactics stressed the stalling of Soviet columns upon the sparse road networks on the Russo-Finnish border and using ambush tactics with hit and run to cripple the invaders. The long range and heavy punch of the Boys allowed this. Even during the more conventional warfare on the Karelian Isthmus, the Boys performed well as a long-range sniping weapon, being accurate up to long ranges.
During the British Campaigns of 1940, it was effective against the Panzer Is and IIs, as well as all the lightly armored half-tracks and scout cars used by the German forces. The occasional stories of Boys being useless against German tanks (often either embellishments or half-truths when against Panzer IIIs and IVs) spread far and wide and created a sense of panic and uselessness that was exacerbated by the general confusion and panic of the French Campaign. Even in the Desert, it was able to combat the Italian and majority of German forces until the upgraded Panzer IIIs and IVs appeared.

A Boys Mk1* in its packed and stripped down form. Source:DesertRats.com
The biggest issues with the Boys came from its heavyweight, despite being designated as a man-portable weapon, it weighed as much as a Vickers Machine Gun. It wasn’t uncommon for the Boys to be passed unto the new guy or platoon miscreant and it almost always is seen being marched between two men. It was this weight that meant it needed to be in a prepared position and thus didn’t suit the more mobile, fluid nature of the modern battlefield. It was mainly down to this reason why it was one of the first weapons to be abandoned during a retreat and why specialist groups like the Long Range Desert Patrol and the Special Air Service replaced it with other weapons (like the M2 Browning) as soon as possible.
Another issue came from the misunderstanding of its deployment. As it was designated ‘Anti-Tank’, the common soldier and officer alike expected it to perform in a similar fashion to a 2 pounder, that is, destroying a tank. The Boys was meant to work in conjunction with other weapons to allow the infantry platoon to combat armor. Its primary purpose was to incapacitate an armored vehicle so it may be dealt with by more specialised anti-tank weapons or even infantry borne explosives. However, the word of an infantryman travels fast within the British army and it wasn’t long that those who returned from France had whipped up such a reputation about the Boys that the Commanders were forced to act. Numerous pamphlets were issued explaining the correct handling and deployment of the weapon, like aiming for tracks, vision ports, gripping the rear handle and pushing into the shoulder. There is also a famous example of combating this rumor. Disney was commissioned by the Canadian Directorate of Military Training, the Canadian Department of National Defence and the National Film Board of Canada to produce an animated and live action educational film on the proper use and handling of the Boys. The end scene states “a rifle is like a woman, treat her right and she will never let you down”. It also didn’t help that most of the ranges within the UK were not capable of handling the Boys and so training with it was limited.

A still from the Disney film, ‘Crack That Tank’ commissioned by Canada to help dismiss the rumours about the Boys. Source: Rifleman.orh.uk
Due to the constant upgrading of Axis tanks in face of more superior and widespread Allied anti-tank weaponry (especially those for the infantryman like the Bazooka and PIAT), the Boys was left behind. This didn’t mean it wasn’t useful though. It was still kept in Divisional inventory until the end of the war. It found uses like long range sniping, anti-fortification and convoy ambushing. This was especially appreciated during the Italian campaign, where Italian and German strong points could effectively hold off much larger forces. The Boys was able to penetrate sandbags and even rocks in order to negate the Axis advantage. Tests conducted in early 1940 showed that the Boys could penetrate up to 355mm of concrete and 254mm of sandbags.
While the Boys gained a much-undeserved reputation, when one looks at its combat records, it speaks for itself. It was a weapon that could, when in the right hands, perform well. As one Australian says after a battle in the desert, “The Italians counterattacked with nine tanks and hundreds of infantrymen. Private O.Z. Neall knocked out three Italian tanks with his Boyes anti-tank rifle, a feat that astounded everyone —the Boyes rifle was noted for its uselessness.”

An American propaganda poster showing a British ‘Tommy’ with a Boys slung over his shoulder. Source:Rifleman.org.uk

Specifications

Caliber .0.5507 in. (13.99 mm)
Barrel Lenght 36 in. (910 mm); Airborne: 30 in. (762 mm)
Overall Lenght 5 ft 2 in (1.575 m); Airborne: 4 feet 8 inches (1.427 m)
Weight, unloaded 13lb (16.3 kg)
Practical Rate of Fire 10 rounds per minute
Muzzle velocity Mk I: 747 m/s (2,450.1 ft/s); Mk II: 884 m/s (2,899.5 ft/s)
Effective firing range 23.2mm penetration at 90° 100 yards (91 m); 18.8mm penetration at 90° 500 yards (460 m)
Feed system 5-round detachable box magazine
Action repeater, cylinder lock (bolt action)

Links & Resources

Rifleman.org.uk
Jaegerplatoon- AT Rifles
Zaloga, Steven J. , The Anti-Tank Rifle, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018
Weeks, John S. , Men against tanks: a history of anti-tank warfare, Mason/Charter, 1975
War Office, Boys Anti Tank Rifle Mark I, Aldershot Gale and Polden Limited, 1944
War Office, Small Arms Training Volume I, Pamphlet No. 5 Anti-Tank Rifle 1942


The Boys Anti-Tank Rifle. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma funded by our Patreon Campaign.

Categories
WW2 Finnish Armor

Vickers 6 ton in Finnish Service

Finnish tanks United Kingdom/Finland (1933-1941)
Light Tank – 33 purchased and modified

Despite being produced by a British company, and one with a solid reputation at that, the Vickers 6-Ton tank was not adopted by the British armed forces. However, it did see a lot of service with nations like Poland, China and Bolivia, among many others.

Tank Trials

At the turn of the 1930s, Finland’s armored corps consisted of 34 aging Renault FTs and 1 Saint-Chamond Modele 1921. It was decided, after discussions within the Ministry of Defence, that the current armored inventory was obsolete and new equipment was needed to keep up with the changing face of armored warfare. So, in response to this, the Finnish MoD, Puolustusministeriö, ordered three different tanks from the United Kingdom on the 6th of June 1933: a Vickers-Carden-Loyd Mk VI* (V.A.E. 115), a Vickers-Carden-Loyd Model 1933 (V.A.E. 503) and a Vickers-Armstrongs 6-Ton Tank Alternative B (V.A.E. 546), at a cost of £8,410 (about £557,622 in 2017). Vickers also sent a Vickers-Carden-Loyd Light Amphibious Tank Model 1931 as well for free but this performed so poorly in trials that the Finns returned it after only 17 days. The other three tanks arrived in Finland in October and trials started immediately.

The Vickers-Armstrongs 6-Ton Tank Alternative B (V.A.E. 546) undergoing trials in 1933. Source: Suomalaiset Panssarivaunut
The Vickers-Carden-Loyd Mk VI* showed poor performance on the cross country course and snow testing showed that it would be useless outside of roads. The Finns classed it as unsuitable for combat but retained it, with the loving nickname “satiainen” (crab louse), as a training vehicle. The Vickers-Carden-Loyd Model 1933 performed well during the cross country obstacle tests and was praised for easy steering, good speed and technical reliability, but it failed to meet the grade due to it lacking sufficient armament (no tank gun), only a single machine-gun, and poor mobility in snow tests. The Vickers-Armstrongs 6-Ton Tank Alternative B was accepted by the Finnish Armed Forces as its new standard tank due to it showing excellent cross-country performance, good deep snow mobility and its adequate armament options. Its technical simplicity and ease of design meant it could be kept in use in rough field conditions.

The order

The Ministry of Defence placed an order for 32 Vickers-Armstrongs 6-Ton Tank Alternative B on the 20th of July 1936. The idea was to form the tanks into a battalion with 2 companies of 15 tanks and a HQ element of 2 tanks. After negotiations, the order would come in three deliveries, 11 tanks on 20th July 1937, 10 tanks on 1st of April 1938, and the final 11 tanks on 1st of January 1939. To help save money, the tanks were ordered without optics, radios or even armament. This brought the price of each tank to only £4,500 each (about £298,371 in 2018). However, due to issues at Vickers Armstrong, the first batch of tanks didn’t arrive until July 1938 and, by the start of the Winter War (30th November 1939), only 26 tanks had been delivered.
What did arrive though was not a standard Vickers Mark E. When Belgium was looking for a new tank, Vickers Armstrong wanted to place a Rolls-Royce Phantom II water-cooled engine in it, due to faults discovered in Poland’s order that had led to overheating issues. However, the engine was much bigger than the original Armstrong Siddeley Puma engine and so the hull was made a little bit longer and the engine was mounted on the left side, offsetting the turret to the right.
Once deliveries reached Finland, they were transported to Valtion Tykkitehdas (VTT/ State Artillery Factory) where they would be equipped with guns, optics, tools and even seats. Due to the worsening situation in Europe, delays in deliveries, problems with VTT’s production and issues with sourcing parts from elsewhere, the equipping of the 6-Ton tanks was slow and, by the end of 1939, only 10 tanks were ready.

Armament

As mentioned earlier, to help save money, the tanks were ordered completely devoid of armament. Vickers Armstrong had offered to equip them with the same 47mm low-velocity gun that had come with the evaluation tank. This gun had been tested during the trials, and while it had good capabilities against soft targets (similar to the performance of the 37mm Puteaux SA-18 already in use on the Renault FT), it lacked penetration against armored and bunker targets and thus was deemed unsuitable for Finnish use. Instead, they opted for a licensed produced version of the 37mm Bofors anti-tank gun, adapted into a tank gun role. This gun was perfect for Finnish use, having an effective high explosive shell, as well as a good armor piercing one capable of defeating the vast majority of tanks in service during the late 30s and early 40s. German Zeiss TZF sights had been ordered, but due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, these were canceled by Germany itself. This forced the Finns to produce their own optics, a straight-through telescopic sight type with a simple crosshair reticle, that was housed in a cylindrical cowl to the left of the gun. Tank crews complained of a limited field of vision and lack of range markings, which made finding and engaging targets time consuming and was a factor in the poor performance of the Vickers tank in Finnish service. This was all mounted into a Bofors designed mantlet that was similar to that used on the Polish 7TP (however, unlike the Polish 7TP, the turret was the one supplied by Vickers and also built by Bofors).
The original co-axial gun offered was an air-cooled Vickers medium machine gun but this was rejected on the grounds of it being a non-standard calibre (.303 British). It was also thought that adding a co-axial machine-gun would put too much complexity on getting the tanks ready and while it was considered to add the M/09-31 Maxim machine-gun (a domestically produced, improved air-cooled version) it never was produced. This led to the need for a self-defense weapon. The chosen weapon was strangely a submachine gun. It was a specially modified version of the Suomi M/31. The VTT modified the hull by incorporating a firing port which could take the SMG, which had a slim but fixed barrel jacket and a pistol grip but no butt. It had a simple optical sight, took the standard 70-round drum magazine, and performed very well as a self-defense weapon. This also increased the crew complement to four.
It is also noteworthy that some Vickers were deployed alongside the Renault FTs during the 1939 summer war games and that these had been ‘loaned’ the 37-mm Puteaux SA-18 (37 Psv.K/18 in Finnish service) from non-participating Renault FTs. This had been to allow the crews to become familiar with their tank, as well as use up stocks of blank ammunition. It is due to this that some writers believe that the Finnish 6-ton were armed with the 37mm SA-18 at the outbreak of the Winter War, but this was not the case. These training tanks also were armed with the M/09-31 Maxim machine-gun on the right side of the Puteaux in a semi-coaxial housing.
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A close up of the Vickers during the 1939 Summer War Games. You can clearly see the borrowed 37 mm Puteaux SA-18, as well as the specially adapted Maxim gun. Source: SA Kuva

Specification

Dimensions (L-W-H) 4.54 meters x 2.40 meters x 2.10 meters
Total weight, battle ready 8.6 tons
Crew 4(commander, gunner, driver, submachine gun-gunner)
Propulsion 92 hp Armstrong-Siddeley Puma 4-cylinder gasoline engine
Speed (road/off-road) 35/10 km/h
Range (road/off road) 165/91 km
Armament 37 mm Psv.K/36 (L/45) tank gun (50 rounds)
9 mm Suomi M/31 hull submachine gun (1,444 rounds)
Armor Hull front and sides 17.5 mm (upper part) / 10 mm (lower part)
Hull sides 17.5 mm (upper side of combat compartment) / 10 mm (lower part)
Hull top and floor 5 mm
Hull rear 10 mm
Turret front and sides 13.6 mm
Track width 28 cm
Track link length 12.5 cm
Ground Clearance 37.5 cm
Ground Pressure 0.48 kg/square cm
Gradient 39 degrees
Trench Crossing 1.9 meters
Fording 0.9 meters


Illustration of the Finnish modified Vickers 6-ton by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet

Service

The Armored Battalion was mobilized just before the outbreak of hostilities (8th October 1939) and thus found itself ready with trained men but lacking in terms of equipment. None of the Vickers were ready to go to war.
The battalion was broken into 5 companies, 1st and 2nd equipped with Renault FTs and held in reserve until the 6th of February 1940, when they were then ordered to dig in and form parts of the defensive line around Näykkijärvi and Taipale. 3rd and 4th Companies were to be equipped with Vickers but were still waiting. The 5th company did not have tanks and was used as a replacement pool for the other companies.
The first armed Vickers arrived from the VTT in mid-December and were assigned to the 4th Company and limited training in combat and formation tactics were started. It reached a peak strength of 16 on the 23rd of February 1940 when it received orders to move to the front.
The situation in late February 1940 for the Finns was a dire one. Despite achieving stunning results in the opening month of the war, forcing the Soviets to call off their offensives and dig in, the vast numerical superiority in both men and machines was taking its toll upon the Finns. This, coupled with a restructuring of the Soviet forces and plans, eventually saw the Finnish frontline on the Karelian Isthmus break in mid-February and a falling back to hastily prepared secondary positions.
In the Naykkijärvi area, the Soviet 84th Rifle Division had penetrated further than their flanks and were now becoming a threatening bulge in the Finnish line. Lieutenant General Harald Öhquist, Commander of II Corps, wanted to secure his position and thus ordered a counter-attack. The 4th Tank Company was attached to the 3rd Jaeger battalion and these were supported by the 14th and 67th Infantry Regiments. The plan called for a preliminary bombardment by two artillery battalions, followed by a quick strike by the Tank Company and the Jaeger battalion to the shores of Naykkijärvi then to wheel left and push the Soviet forces back out of the village of Honkaniemi and thus straighten the front line.
However, things went awry from the beginning. Out of the original 16 tanks, only 7 got the starting point. Then one tank got stuck on a tree stump and was thus incapable of taking part in the attack. The artillery barrage fell short and caused numerous casualties to the Jaegers, thus postponing the hour of the attack. When the attack went ahead, the coordination between the tanks and the infantry was non-existent and soon the tanks found themselves alone. The Finns soon were up against a Soviet force in waiting and after only 3 hours the attack was called off. In the aftermath, it was revealed that 5 tanks were knocked out, 1 badly damaged but returned to the jumping off point, with casualties of 1 killed, 3 wounded, and 5 missing. The company was ordered to reform at Rautlampi to become mobile anti-tank guns. The main reasons for the failure in Honkaniemi was a combination of inexperienced, albeit passionate, crews, poor command and control, and loss of surprise; as well as vast numerical superiority on the side of the Soviets.
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Soviet soldiers inspecting one of the knocked out 4th company Vickers in Honkaniemi. Notice the national insignia stripes, which were two white surrounding blue. Source: Suomalaiset Panssarivaunut
For the rest of the war, the tanks performed anti-tank reserve duties on the Karelian Isthmus, losing another 3 tanks but claiming 4 Soviet tanks.

After the War

Once the war ended on the morning of the 13th March 1940, the remaining Finnish Vickers were pulled back to the new Soviet-Finnish border where they waited. The last handful of Vickers also arrived from Britain (about 6) and a review was held by the Finnish Command Staff on the performance and future role of Finnish tanks. It was concluded that while the 37mm was an effective weapon, it was questionable if it would remain as such in any future conflict. Other conclusions include that the optical sights were of poor quality and affected performance, and more training was required in force coordination and field maintenance. The mandatory installation of radios in all tanks was also seen as a priority.
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A Soviet close up of a Finnish Vickers during its evaluation at Kublinka in 1940, soon after the end of the Winter War. Source: aviarmor.net
A decision was made that the remaining 26 Vickers Tanks in Finnish service would see conversion into the T-26E. This came about after the numbers of repaired captured T-26s surpassed the numbers of Vickers, as well as the huge surplus of T-26 45mm tank guns from those tanks not able to be reconditioned. By 17th June 1941, all Vickers tanks were now of the T-26E modification.
Today one Vickers has been restored to its original 1939/40 condition, Ps.161-7, and is part of the Armoured Vehicle Museum (Finnish Panssarimuseo) collection.
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The only example of a Finnish modified 6 ton tank. Converted back from a T-26E conversion post war. Source: Juha Oksanen

Notes on the differences between the Finnish Vickers and the T-26

To many, the T-26 and the Vickers 6 ton look the same, especially in the upgraded Vickers, the T-26E. One way to tell them apart is the left of the driver that is a rectangle hatch where the submachine gun is positioned. Another way to tell is the engine deck is shorter and more angular on the Vickers. A third way is that the Vickers mounted the turret on the right side, while the T-26 was offset to the left.
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A T-26E, notice the submachine gun port, which is unique to both the Finnish Vickers, and sets it apart from the captured Soviet T-26s. Source: SA Kuva

Links, Resources & Further Reading

Muikku, Esa, Suomalaiset Panssarivaunut 1918-1997 (Apali Oy, 2003)
Haapanen, Atso, Suomen Panssariase 1918-1944 (Myllylahti Oy, 2016)
Vickers 6 Ton on Jaegerplatoon
A special thanks to Jari Saurio from the Panssarimuseo who helped answer questions and clear up some information.