Cold War British Unarmored Vehicles

FV-1801A Austin ‘Champ’

United Kingdom (1951)
Light Vehicle – 12,000 Built

An army functions on logistics. Logistics to bring food, men, guns to a fight. Logistics to move around the battlefield, and logistics to get from A to B in peacetime. The vehicle to fulfill these functions must be simple, reliable, rugged, and adaptable. Probably the most famous example of a vehicle to try and meet these needs was the WW2 US ‘Jeep’ but, in post-WW2 Britain, reliance on Jeeps was not going to be adequate. A whole new fleet of vehicles was being developed to prepare the British Army for modern war and replace most of the complex myriad of WW2 vintage equipment which was worn out or simply redundant. As part of this rationalization of the Army, it was desired to have a greater degree of compatibility and capability in the armored and unarmored vehicles than had ever been enjoyed before. These goals led to perhaps the finest light utility vehicle ever to come out of the UK, the appropriately named ‘Champ’.

Development – Gutty and Mudlark to Champ

The post-war desire from the British was to meet the needs for commonality and to generally have a vehicle better than the old Jeep. Work began in 1947 on the ‘Car, 4 x 4, 5 cwt. FV-1800 Series’. The name said it all, a car (rather than a truck or armored vehicle), with four-wheel drive in the ¼ ton. (Imperial) class.

The prototype vehicle to meet this need was from Nuffield motors and known as the ‘Gutty’, of which just 2 examples were produced. Powered by a horizontally-opposed 4 cylinder ‘boxer’ engine, this neat vehicle came with deep-bodied sides, simple body panels including a radiator grille stamped from sheet steel with 10 slots (one of the two had vertical slots and the other had horizontal slots), and a curved bonnet with a swell in the top. A flat two-panel folding windscreen, with each panel having its own wiper, provided protection for the occupants from wind or rain whilst driving. A folding canvas tilt was used to cover the occupants from foul weather. Simple folding canvas seats provided some comfort for the occupants.

The Gutty was a sound design, albeit one with room for improvement, and served to spur the Fighting Vehicle and Research Development Establishment (F.V.R.D.E.) to continue development.

Surviving Nuffield Gutty.

Charles Sewell led the design team, which included Alec (later Sir) Issigonis (most famous for his design of the Austin Mini, amongst others) working on the suspension. It set to work on improving the new vehicle, creating the Mudlark. Thirty prototypes of this new vehicle were constructed by the Wolseley motor car company under contract 6/Veh/2387 signed 27th August 1948. 12 of them were built with a hardtop as a saloon version and another with a 1-ton Turner winch. The power plant for the Mudlark was one of the key successes of the design which would become the Champ. It used a Rolls Royce B40 No. 1 Mk.2A petrol engine. The Mudlark, however, was perhaps a bit too car-like and not Army-like enough, although one Mudlark was shipped to the USA for government evaluation. The body had become more complex than the Gutty, with a more pronounced and rounded bonnet and a small radiator grille with 5 ovaloid holes. The Gutty had relatively simple curved mudguards projecting slightly from the sides, but the Mudlark adopted a large curved mudguard over the front. Whilst this would no doubt have been more effective at stopping mud being thrown up by the front tires when driving off-road, they would also add to the weight, complexity, and cost of the vehicle.

Once more, the design used a flat-bodied design and a folding two-piece windscreen, although the Mudlark was only fitted with a single windscreen wiper for the driver’s side.

Wolseley Mudlark ‘Saloon’ with hardtop
Source: Silodrome
Surviving Mudlark at a military show at Evesham in 2012. Note the Austin Champ in the background. The similarities in the designs are as unmistakable as the flared front wheel arches.
Source: David Busfield on Flickr

The Mudlark was simply not adequate to the needs of F.V.R.D.E., which now had fully adopted the idea of commonality of engine parts. Tests of the Mudlark found problems with oil leaking from the differentials into the wheel hubs and it was clear that the Mudlark needed some additional improvement.

Twelve pre-production Champs were made for evaluation, with half as the Cargo version and half as the Fitted For Wireless (FFW) model. These vehicles tested very well in trials and little was needed for this vehicle to be put into production, although the most distinctive change would be the addition of pioneer tools to the outside and a more refined dashboard.

The ‘Car, 4 x 4, 5 cwt. FV-1800 Series’ became the ‘Truck ¼ ton, 4 x 4 CT’, indicating it was now going to be more than just a car, but was still going to be capable of four-wheel drive and in the same weight class. However, now, by virtue of the ‘CT’ designation, it was suitable for use in a combat theatre, although CT stands simply for the first and last letters of the word combat rather than as an abbreviation for something specific. It retained the FV-1800 series designation. This truck would fill the bottom end of the logistics spectrum compared to its larger siblings, the ‘Truck, 1 ton, 4 x 4,CT’ made by Humber motors, and the ‘Truck, 10 ton, 6 x 6, CT’ made by Leyland as the Layland Martian. Humber and Leyland had both hoped for the production contracts for the Champ, but it was Austin that got it.

A Leyland Martian towing a 5.5” field gun. Source: Pinterest

Thus, the first of a new breed of light trucks had been born, and contract 6/Veh/5531 was signed for 15,000 vehicles for the Army. Production began on 1st September 1951 by Austin out of their plant at Cofton Hackett near Birmingham as the ‘FV-1801A, Truck, ¼ ton, 4 x 4, CT, Austin Mk.1’ in both Cargo and FFW versions. The vehicle for the Army retained that rather complex name, whilst the version available on the civilian market was ‘Champ’. This was quickly adopted by the Army as well and, therefore, from its origins onwards, the vehicle would simply be known as Champ.


The Champ used a solidly built bodywork made from pressed steel panels from the ‘Pressed Steel Company’. These were welded together on top of an ‘X’ shaped chassis. The bodywork added stiffness to the design with reinforcing ribs pressed into the bodywork to increase integrity. The rear wheel arches were simple curves pressed out of the body, but the front ones were simple pressed extensions from the front, with a horizontal portion at the top turning to a down-angle – no more curves or flared wheel arches like on the Mudlark. The bonnet and grille, however, showed its Mudlark heritage much better, with a 5 ovaloid opening radiator and large rounded bonnet.

The two-panel windscreen, like the Gutty and Mudlark before it, could be folded down over the bonnet and was fitted with a pair of windscreen wipers.

A folding tilt, made from PVC-coated cloth rather than waterproof canvas, kept out the weather without the weight of a canvas title and featured a small vertical plastic window ahead of the door, a larger window in the door, and a pair of triangular windows in the rear. The doors and side panels were separately removable, allowing for the vehicle to operate simply with a title covering the top and rear but totally open sides (apart from the ‘V’-shaped struts holding the roof up) on each side.

On the rear of the Champ, a fitting for a spare Dunlop 6.5 or 7.5 x 16 tire came as standard on the rear right, and a jerry can on the rear left.

Cross-section of the Austin Champ. Source:


The 80 bhp 2.838 liter Rolls Royce B40 petrol engine was a solidly built and rugged design. With 4 cylinders (‘40’ means 4 cylinders in the series designation) and a bore of 3.5”, this was a tough and solidly built motor using a carburetor (No. 1 was a carburetor engine in the series designation), cast-iron block, and a cast aluminum cylinder head. The engine had started life in 1936 to make an engine as reliable as could be.

Originally manufactured by Rolls Royce in Crewe, early production vehicles used the same No.1 Mk.2A version of the B40 which still had British Standard Fine (BSF) threads, even though, in 1949, a production switch had been made to use Unified Fine Thread (UNF) as the Mk. 5 engine. Later production engines, therefore, moved from that Mk.2A version for the first 30 prototypes to the 2A/4 model for the next 1,477 vehicles, followed by the Mk. 5A for the remainder. Some Mk. 5 engine production was carried out by Austin Motors under license as the ‘Austin-Rolls’, with some simplifications added in. One of these was a switch from an aluminum cylinder head to a cast-iron one.

Civilian sales of the Champ were not a success, primarily because it was expensive, but the engine was also different. The civilian market Champ was sold with either the Rolls Royce B40 or the more economical 2.66-liter Austin A90 petrol engine. It would also not be sold waterproofed.

On the military version, the engine, along with all of the electrical systems, like the ignition and also the transmission, were completely sealed. This meant that the Champ was waterproof, with the engine perfectly able to run even when completely submerged. Video footage of the vehicle taken in the deep wading tank at Chertsey shows this very well, with the only thing required to wade being the erection of the deep wading air intake on the front right of the bonnet. The driver could then simply stand up to keep his head out of the water and then drive the Champ through water up to 6’ (1.8 m) deep. As long as the air intake was out of the water, the Champ was perfectly able to wade through any depth, although the real limitations of its wading were down to the height of the driver more than anything technical on the vehicle.

In the freshwater deep wading tank at Farnborough, 19th November 1952. The driver has sensibly prepared for immersion. The snorkel is up and the Champ will show its waterproofing to the full. Source: David Busfield on Flickr

The transmission system for the Champ was a robust 5-speed box with synchromesh connected to a Borg and Beck clutch. This made for a simple and robust system, to which a drive shaft was connected running under the truck to the transfer box at the back and thence to the rear wheels. The reversing gearing for the Champ was located in the transfer box at the back, which, in effect, meant that the Champ could go backward at the same speed it could go forwards, although it is unclear who, if anyone, ever tried reversing one at 50 mph (80.5 km/h). The feature of high-speed reverse, whilst hazardous for ‘normal’ use, would have an advantage for the vehicle if it was being used as a weapons carrier or for reconnaissance, where going backward very quickly out of sight of an enemy might be an advantage. One extra thing included on the civilian model was a Power Take-Off (PTO) on the transfer box, as it would be more useful for civilian farm-related tasks.

The suspension for the Champ, designed by Issigonis, used fully independent double wishbones on the front and rear, with torsion bars running underneath down the middle of the vehicle connected to the central meeting point of the ‘X’-shaped frame on which the vehicle was built. This unusual system provided for a superb level of comfort even off-road.

A Champ after rolling over provides an excellent study of the arrangement underneath, with the X-shaped frame and longitudinal torsion bars easily identifiable. Source: Silodrome

The Champ operated on a 24-volt electrical system allowing for easy fitting of radio equipment to form an FFW (Fitted For Wireless) vehicle, with just the addition of a sliding table and battery mounts. Civilian versions of the Champ operated on a more conventional and simpler 12-volt electrical system.

Operating on a 20 gallon (90.9 litres) petrol tank, this provided the Champ with an operational range of around 300 miles (483 km) at 15 mpg (6.4 km/l), although off-road or harsh driving, or being fully laden, would reduce that number substantially.


As part of FV-1800 series vehicles, there were sub-designations of the Champ in service. Specifically:

FV-1801A – Basic cargo version for use by all arms
FV-1801A/1 – Basic FFW (Fitted For Wireless) vehicle
FV-1801A/2 – Ambulance with modified body
FV-1801A/3 – Cable layer for signals use with rear-mounted drum
FV-1801A/4 – 0.5” heavy machine gun mount (unarmored) – no windscreen fitted
FV-1801A/5 – 0.303 Vickers machine gun mount (armored)


The standard general service Champ was not armed but, like the Jeep before it, could be adapted to carry a variety of weapons for whatever task it might be called upon to fulfill. Weapons carried on various mounts included the .303 caliber Bren light machine gun, .303 Vickers machine gun, 7.62 mm Browning machine gun, a 106 mm recoilless rifle, and even a 3” mortar.

Introduced to the British airborne force in 1956, the 106 mm recoilless rifle, in particular, offered a valuable capability for them, specifically the ability to bring a weapon capable of defeating any known tank at the time on an airborne operation on a mobile platform. This weapon, the M40, was actually 105 mm in caliber, but classed and named as 106 mm to avoid confusion with 105 mm tank ammunition. Loaded with a single shell at the time via a folding breech, it could fire a high explosive anti-tank round capable of defeating up to 400 mm of armor to a maximum range of just under 7 km. With a .50 caliber spotting rifle attached to improve accuracy, the weapon proved its value in Suez 1956, when one was used to knock out a Soviet SU-100 belonging to Egyptian forces.

A knocked out Egyptian SU-100 during the 1956 intervention in the Suez. Unknown if this particular vehicle was hit by a recoilless rifle or not. Source: IWM
Taken in 1965/66 in West Germany, this Champ is fitted with a 3” mortar in the back as a firing platform. Source:
Close-up of the front of an Austin Champ showing the pintle mount for the 7.62 mm Browning machine gun. Source:
Double trouble. A Champ fitted with a 106 mm Battalion anti-tank rifle and towing a trailer fitted with another one. It is unclear what the items are on the ground behind the trailer, but it may be an air-drop palette. Source: Silodrome
With a 106 mm recoilless rifle mounted on the back and what appears to be a folding plate of some description on the front, this Champ belongs to the Parachute Regiment at Amman Airfield in 1958. It was a serious threat to men and tanks alike. Note the modification on the sides to allow it to hold jerry cans. Source:

A Weapon’s Mount that is not

A Champ used in a short TV film from British comedy duo Morecambe and Wise featured a Vickers water-cooled machine gun mounted inside the passenger space. This was not the correct mounting point for the weapon and only seems to have appeared because of the show itself. The Vickers machine gun mount was carried, in the normal position, on the front left of the vehicle and, therefore, would not have to fire over or through the driver to get to the target. The correct positioning of the Vickers machine gun can be seen in the section titled ‘Armor’.

This is NOT the correct mount for a water-cooled Vickers machine gun. Seen here during the 1967 Morecambe and Wise comedy sketch ‘The Magnificent Two’. The vehicle is undeniably a Champ, but any traverse of a machine gun mounted like this would be hazardous for the men sitting in the front. The availability of the vehicles after decommissioning from the Army led to numerous film and TV appearances from movies to Dr. Who.


Fifty sets of armor plates were produced for the Champ as part of trials for the FV-1801A/5 version. Each kit cost GBP£100 (GBP£3,200 in 2020 values) and they were trialed prior to 1959, as they were disposed of from stores starting in 1958. The armor protection was modest. A large single angled plate was mounted on the front, covering the vulnerable radiator extending just above the bonnet, and would deflect bullets upwards over the vehicle or down in the ground. For the men crewing the vehicle, two rectangular shields were provided, with one for the driver and another for the front seat passenger featuring a cut out for a .303 caliber Vickers water-cooled machine gun. Less clear at first glance is what appears to be a semi-circular armor plate riveted over the dashboard bulkhead. Presumably, a cut-out was provided for the dials so the crew could see the speed of the vehicle, but this additional protection would prevent shots that avoided the front deflector plate from injuring the crew by simply passing through the top of the vehicle above the bonnet. No side, rear, or roof armor protection was provided and the arrangement was clearly set out with a reconnaissance version in mind. The total weight of the armor is unclear, but it was not extensive, so it is unlikely to have affected the performance outside of making it harder for the driver to see where he was going. The thickness of the armor is also unknown, but to be of use ballistically, it would likely be 8 to 10 mm thick.

The high mounting position of the machine gun is also of note. Positioned as it was, the front seat passenger would clearly be able to operate the gun from a seated position, firing forwards with complete coverage for their head from the plating. This would not be the most accurate way of firing, as aiming would be very difficult. If accurate firing was needed, the operator could simply stand up and still have their torso behind the plate.

Rare view of a line-up of armored Austin Champs. Source: Mastrangelo
Seen from the rear ¾, the rear of the Vickers machine gun and the pair of front plates for the crew are obvious. Note the additional plating riveted across the dashboard bulkhead area. Source: IWM
Front ¾ view of a Champ with armor plating and machine gun in place. Source: Pinterest
Head-on view of the Champ with armor plate and a machine gun in place. From this angle, the minimal armor actually affords good protection for the crew. Source: Pinterest
Seen at a military show in Evesham 2012, this Austin Champ has been modified to show the armor fittings fitted to 50 such vehicles. Source: David Busfield on Flickr


The regular British Army got the Champ just too late for the war in Korea, but in time for the intervention in Suez in 1956. It was also issued to units in Germany with the British Army of the Rhine (B.A.O.R.), Far East Land Forces (F.E.L.F.) in Hong Kong, Malaya, and Singapore as well as units with Middle East Land Forces (M.E.L.F.) in places such as Cyprus, Egypt, Aden, Malta, and Libya. Other vehicles went to British Guiana and Caribbean Command (C.C.) in Jamaica as well as East Africa Command (E.A.C.) in Kenya and Uganda. Basically, everywhere the Army of the era would be stationed, one could expect a Champ to make an appearance.

The British Army was not the only user either. In 1953, 400 brand new Champs were also purchased by the Australian Army from the British Ministry of Supply. They wanted these as a supplement rather than as a replacement to the Jeep. This was followed by the purchase of another 400 used vehicles from British Army stocks. Two other Champs fitted with the Austin A90 engine instead of the Rolls Royce B40 were trialed in Australia but returned after testing. Like the British, who had fitted a recoilless rifle to theirs, one Australian vehicle was also fitted with an M401A1 106 mm rifle, but only on an experimental basis. All of the Australian vehicles were withdrawn from service in the mid-1960s.

Austin Champ in Australian service with a snorkel in the erect position at the back of a row of three utility vehicles, with the Willys Jeep (front), Landrover (middle), and Champ (rear). The Jeep was the crudest of the bunch and the Champ the most complex and most expensive. The Land Rover was cheaper, simpler, better than the Jeep, and nearly as good as the Champ. Source:
Austin Champ with the windscreen removed parked under the shades of some palms during Operation Musketeer, Suez, 1956. Source: Imperial War Museum

The French Army also trialed a cargo version of the Champ in 1953, fitted with a one-ton winch. That Champ was tested by loading it with 400 kg of ballast and driving across various terrain. The Champ passed the French trials very well and performed better off-road than the French Delahaye VLR, but was eventually rejected in preference for the French vehicle.

Perhaps the most handsome vehicle ever used by the British Army, the Champ is popular with collectors thanks to its history, reliability, and rugged looks. Source: Silodrome

The End

Automotively, the vehicle was excellent. It had good performance, great riding characteristics, was solidly built, and had a rugged and reliable engine with lots of commonality with other vehicles for a low logistic burden to support it. With that, it might be surmised that the vehicle was a success, but it was not. It was prone to misuse and abuse, being fun to drive off-road, which caused some issues with broken rear axles. The primary problem, just as it had been with the Mudlark, was a lack of attention to oil levels in the axles. The overly complex electrical system and other features also proved hard to service and the benefit of spares interchangeability across other vehicles proved to be less useful than it might have been.

Despite this, the vehicle was popular, comfortable, and fitted with a heater. This was guaranteed to win the hearts of many soldiers but all of these were side issues to the real problem. The Champ was a bit too good. It just cost too much and did more than the Army really needed. The designers had gone too far and really built the Rolls Royce of Jeeps when what was needed was more a Toyota of Jeeps, reliable, but at a better price. The Champ cost a whopping GBP£1,200 (GBP£35,500 in 2020 values) per vehicle. With some 15,000 on order, this meant a huge cost that post-war Britain could little afford to spend on gold-plated vehicles. With the arrival of a cost-effective alternative in the form of the Land Rover from Rover Motor Cars, at nearly half the price and nearly all the capability, the Champ was doomed. In 1955, with 11,732 built, production ended and the 86” wheelbase Land Rovers began to replace the Champ in regular army service as ‘Truck, ¼ ton, 4 x 4, GS, Rover Mk.3’. Around 500 of the civilian version of the Champ were also made.

As they were being phased out through the 1960s, the Champs were pushed through Territorial Army units before the final vehicles were sold off in 1968.

Perhaps the most unusual use for an ex-military vehicle was the use of these two Champs as part of the British hovertrain program in the early 1970s. The program was later abandoned.

The Champ had proved a mixed blessing. It was more capable than the WW2-era Jeep, but it was complex and expensive. Soldiers did not enjoy the additional maintenance burden of looking after the Champ. Many road accidents which had occurred during its service gave rise to an impression of it being top-heavy or having a tendency to roll, although this was more to do with improper training or soldiers who were too used to the poor suspension on the Jeep, misjudging corners.


Today, the Austin Champ remains a popular vehicle with military vehicle enthusiasts. Two of the pre-production vehicles were known to have survived into the 1970s, although they are currently of unknown status. One of the two Guttys produced survived at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gayden, Warwickshire. Two surviving Mudlarks are known, with one believed to be in the USA. Two of the 50 Champs built as armored versions still survive, with one in the USA, although neither is fitted with the original armor.

A squeaky-clean Austin Champ with the canvas tilt raised over the passenger compartment.
A partly armored Austin Champ, with protection for the engine from the front and armor plates for the driver and machine-gunner on his left. The machine gun is a .303 Vickers.
A 106 mm Recoilless Rifle fitted on an Austin Champ to allow it to ambush and take out enemy AFVs. At least one SU-100 fell prey to such a vehicle. All illustrations by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Austin Champ specifications

Dimensions 12’ (3.66 m) long, 5’ (1.65 m) wide, 6’ 8.5” (1.87 m) high with tilt erected
Crew 1 (Driver), seating for 5
Propulsion Rolls Royce B40 2.838 liter petrol engine producing 80 bhp at 3,750 rpm, or Austin A90 2.66 liter petrol
Speed (road) 50 mph (80.5 km/h)
Armament None but optionally fitted with machine guns or a recoilless rifle
Armor None as standard but armor kits available est. 8 – 10 mm thick
For information about abbreviations check the Lexical Index
Original advertising for the Austin Champ shows a military version. Source: Silodrome


Cecil, M. Champ or Chump: The FV1801 Austin Champ in Australian Service. Army Motors.
Hover Train (Tracked Hovercraft) Experiments, Earth-Sutton Gault. At
Mastrangelo, J. (2008). A Brief History of the Austin Champ Austin Champ
Silodrome Gasoline Culture

Cold War US Tactics

1989 US Invasion of Panama

USA vs Panama

The construction of a short cut from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans was a pipe dream for much of the 19th century for both the British and Americans. If a canal existed, then trade would be substantially easier and the United States would be the prime beneficiary. Thus, the US took a keen political, economic, and military interest in the isthmus of Panama, with construction of the canal finally taking place before the First World War.

To protect its vital national interests, the United States maintained a large military presence there throughout the 20th century and should anything threaten that, they would be primed to respond. When, in the 1980s, with political arguments about the future control over the canal at their zenith and a new political leader in Panama in the form of Manuel Noriega, the scene was set for a confrontation between Panama and the USA. This culminated in an invasion of Panama by the US at the end of 1989 – an invasion which deposed Noriega and ensured US control over the canal until 1999, when it was handed over to the people of Panama. The invasion would see a series of combined aerial assaults on key facilities and special forces operations. Other than a few BTRs encountered during the invasion of Grenada 1983, the US potentially faced the prospect of using armored vehicles against enemy armored vehicles in combat for the first time since Vietnam.

The Canal

The construction of the Panama Canal was a political minefield too dangerous to cross for decades, but it was the dream of both the nascent United States and also British financial trading interests in the 19th century.

In 1850, Great Britain and the US agreed in principle to a canal, albeit through the isthmus in Nicaragua, in what was known as the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The project never got further than the treaty but it did at least allay a rivalry between the two countries over who would build a canal and control trade between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Such a canal would potentially shorten the route between the east and west coasts of the USA by 15,000 km.

In 1880, the French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man behind the construction of the Suez Canal, began excavation through what is now Panama. At the time, it was a province of Colombia. After 9 years of failure, Jessops’ program went bankrupt and, a decade later, in 1901, a new treaty was made. This Hay-Pauncefote Treaty replaced the earlier Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and, in 1902, the US Senate agreed to the plan for a canal. The site of the proposed canal was, however, the problem, with it being on Colombian territory and the financial offer made by the US to Colombia was rejected.

The result was a shameless act of imperialism from the allegedly anti-imperialist United States. Having not got their own way with negotiation with Colombia, President Theodore Roosevelt simply sent US warships, including the USS Dixie and USS Nashville, with a combined Naval and USMC landing party to Panama City to ‘support Panamanian independence’. Even if this move was really some modest effort at really supporting an independence movement, the timing was pure opportunism and, with Colombian troops unable to cross the Darien Strait (a heavily forested and mountainous area which, to this day, has no major highway through it) to come and contest the American move, Panamanian independence was established on 3rd November 1903.

It was not without risk, for Colombia was not happy with the theft of a province that was theirs. They landed 400 men at Colon and one ship shelled the city briefly, killing one person. It was only the quick action of the Commander of the USS Nashville, Cmdr. Hubbard, who warned the Colombians that a direct attack on US citizens now in Panama would be a very bad decision and be the start of a war with the USA. The Colombian troops re-embarked and left.

US Marine at the Colon rail depot, Panama, 1903.

With a new and some may say ‘puppet’ government in the brand new country, it very kindly agreed to the Nay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty signed just 15 days after independence. The terms of this treaty were incredibly one-sided, with the US getting everything it could possibly want to allow it to build a canal and have a complete monopoly not only over the canal, lakes, and islands on its route but also to a strip of land 10 miles (16.1 km) wide in which the canal would be constructed. All the Panamanians got for this ransom payment was ‘independence’, albeit completely on US terms, a single payment of US$10 million (just under US$300 million in 2020 values) and an annual payment (starting in year 10) of US$250,000 (US$7.4 million is 2020 values).

President Roosevelt in a white suit standing on a giant steam excavator in 1908 during the construction of the canal. Source: US Library of Congress

If Roosevelt was ebullient about what he could see as a foreign policy coup of bullying a far weaker South American nation and obtaining what he wanted for the canal, then he had underestimated how hard it would be to build. Just 80.4 km long, the canal cost a phenomenal US$375 million (US$11.1 billion in 2020 values), along with an additional US$40 million (US$1.1 billion in 2020 values) to buy out remaining French interests (purchases began in 1902 with the Spooner Act), as Roosevelt could not simply bully or steal those as easily as he had done with the Colombians. With around 5,600 deaths from disease and the conditions, along with the construction costs, the US had made an incredible investment in the canal on the basis of the Nay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, granting it control in perpetuity over the canal zone.

Construction was finished in 1913 and the canal officially opened on 15th August 1914, but the Nay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty forced on the new Panamanian nation proved a continual irritant poisoning relations between the two countries. The 16.1 km strip of what was effectively US sovereign territory, governed much as a colony would be, with a Presidentially-appointed Governor, effectively bisected Panama. The Governor was also a director and President of the Panama Canal Company, a company registered in the United States, and also could, if required, direct the US armed forces stationed in this colony as required to protect the canal.

The continual political problems caused by the Nay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty led to a loosening of it in 1936 and again in 1955 when the US gave up its ‘right’ to take any additional land it needed and handed control of the ports at Colon and Panama City over to the Panamanians.

Civil strife in 1964 led to a March 1973 UN resolution (UNSC Resolution 330) on creating a new canal treaty between the USA and Panama, but the USA was unwilling to cede any control. Three nations abstained from voting on the resolution, the UK, France, and the United States.

With international pressure to do so, the USA finally conceded to Panama and, with the signing of a new treaty in September 1977 between the nations led by US President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos. Under the terms of the treaty, the US received (for the duration of the treaty) the rights to transit the canal and also to defend it, but “The Republic of Panama shall participate increasingly in the management and protection and defense of the Canal…” (Article I.3). More importantly, this treaty laid out a timeline for the handover of the canal to full Panamanian control, with a Panamanian national to be appointed as the Deputy Administrator (the Administrator was to remain a US citizen) until 31st December 1999, when both Administrator and Deputy Administrator roles were to be fully ceded, with Panamanian citizens taking both positions.

The Rise of Noriega and the Collapse in Relations

In 1983, Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega was made commander-in-chief of the military by Colonel Ruben Paredes. Paredes had to resign as commander in chief himself so he could run for the Presidency. Thus, Noriega replaced Parades and then contrived to persuade Parades to withdraw from the race for the Presidency, leading to the election of Eric Devalle as President. With a new President as a figurehead, it was actually Noriega who, as head of the Panamanian military, was the de facto leader of the country. Noriega was no newcomer to political intrigue or even the military. Even at the time of the last free election in Panama, in 1968, when a military coup had toppled President Arnulfo Arias, Noriega was on the scene. In 1968, he was still a young and rather capable intelligence officer who spent his time fostering contacts within the upper echelons of the Panamanian government. He sealed this by creating a close working partnership with the American Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) in supporting covert and often illegal operations against Nicaraguan and Salvadoran leftist groups. Add to this mix his penchant for corruption, intimidation, blackmail, and bribery, and he was destined for the government.

He had also cooperated with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on providing information on the shipment of cocaine from states like Colombia to the USA, but it was perhaps his helping of President Reagan’s and the CIA’s support for the Contras, a Nicaraguan rebel group based in Costa Rica, which is the most notorious. In this period, Noriega assisted in the flow of illegal arms supplies to the Contras via the Islamic Republic of Iran, in violation of the dispositions of the US Congress, as well as Reagan’s own promise to never deal with terrorists.

A pair of Panamanian Cadillac-Gage V-150 Commandos on the beach during a training exercise in 1987. Source Jamurillo_photo via the Armed Forces of Panama on Facebook

Noriega was playing both sides and was actually involved in the smuggling of cocaine into the USA. In February 1988, he was charged in US courts, indicted on drug-related charges in Florida. Following his indictment on drug offenses, the actual President of Panama, Eric Arturo Delvalle, attempted to fire Noriega and failed, as Noriega simply ignored him. In violation of Article V of the 1977 Treaty, which prohibited any intervention in the internal affairs of the Panamanian Republic, the US then encouraged the Panamanian military to overthrow Noriega, culminating in a failed coup attempt to remove him on 16th March 1988.

Faced with a deterioration in the security in the canal zone, it was clear that the existing US forces present, primarily the 193rd Infantry Brigade, were inadequate. President Reagan, therefore, sent an additional 1,300 troops from both the Army and Marines to bolster the 193rd. It was not until 5th April 1988 that this additional force arrived. This defense plan was known as ‘Elaborate Maze’.

The US Forces deployed to Panama in April 1988 for Operation Elaborate Maze were

  • 16th Military Police Brigade
  • 59th Military Police Battalion
  • 118th Military Police Battalion
  • A Marine rifle company from 6th Marine Expeditionary Force
  • Aviation Task Force Hawk consisting of the 23rd Aviation and an attack helicopter company.
  • 7th Infantry Division (light), including 3rd Battalion

Presidential elections in Panama followed in May 1989. During these, despite the best efforts of Noriega to intimidate voters in favor of his own Presidential candidate, Carlos Duque, the winner was Guillermo Endara, as a candidate for the Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition (ADOC). Noriega simply ignored this result and tried to nullify the outcome, appointing Duque as President. The USA, again, despite it being a violation of Article V of the 1977 treaty, criticized Noriega. For his part, Noriega was clearly frustrated with the US criticism and was unsubtle in his refusal to accept his own electoral defeat, even going so far as to have one of his Dignity Battalions assault a protest led by Endara and his running mate Guillermo Ford, leaving them both injured. Despite these events against Endara and Ford, it is important to note that they never requested US intervention. Even so, Noriega’s actions were destabilizing the region. The Organisation of American States (OAS), not often a friendly voice in favor of US regional hegemony, joined in with the criticism of Noriega and requested he step down. Despite this OAS request, only the USA recognized Endara as the legitimate head of government.

Panamanian Defense Forces (P.D.F.) troops during a training exercise sometime in the late 1980s. The vehicle in the back is a Cadillac-Gage V-300 fitted with the CM-90 turret. Source: Pinterest

President Reagan had left office in January 1989 and his Vice-President, George H. Bush, took over as President having won the 1988 elections in the US. Bush was equally as hawkish as Reagan and, in April 1989, he too deployed additional forces to Panama during Operation Nimrod Dancer.

US Forces deployed to Panama in April 1989 for Operation Nimrod Dancer

  • Brigade Headquarters
  • a Light Infantry Battalion from 7th Infantry Division
  • a mechanized infantry battalion from 5th Mechanized Infantry Division equipped with M113 Armored Personnel Carriers
  • a Marine light armored company equipped with LAV-25 Light Armoured Vehicles
An M113 belonging to 5th Mechanised Infantry Division on patrol in Panama City during the invasion and occupation. Source: US Army.

Along with this troop deployment came Operation Blade Jewel – the evacuation of all unnecessary personnel along with military families to the United States. This not only included soldiers’ families, but also those troops whose deployment was the longest too, which obviously served to actually reduce the potential security force in situ in Panama. This particular decision to evacuate some military personnel was later identified as a critical mistake which served only to reduce the operational readiness of aviation resources.

In an escalating war of words and diplomatic slapping, in August 1989, the USA announced that it will not accept a candidate from Panama as Administrator of the Canal appointed by the Panamanian Government. This was even though the 1977 treaty provided that a Panamanian was to replace the US national as Administrator on 1st January 1990.

Noriega retaliated by doubling down and, on 1st September 1989, he appointed a government of loyalists. The US response was simply to refuse to recognise it. As tensions increased through September, more incidents of harassment of US troops and civilians around the Canal Zone were reported in what amounted to a policy of taunting by Noriega.

Despite this obvious destabilization in Panama, a second round of US troop withdrawals known as Operation Blade Jewel II took place, removing more service personnel and their dependents. Once more, the CIA was to try and interfere in internal Panamanian politics (in violation of the 1977 Treaty) by encouraging and helping to organise a Panamanian military coup out of neighbouring Costa Rica. About 200 junior officers led by Major Moises Giroldi were involved in a series of skirmishes around Panama City on 3rd October 1989, but they were quickly quashed by troops from Battalion 2000.

Noriega loyalist forces seen outside the Panamanian Defense Force headquarters the morning after the failed coup, during a curfew.
Source: The Topic Times 4th October 1989 via Joint Audiovisual Detachment.

Seemingly having failed to get a candidate they liked elected fairly (the US-supported Endara with around US$10 million of financial assistance in his campaign), and having failed twice to oust Noriega by means of the CIA instigating a coup, there was now little the US could do short of a full-scale invasion.

Planning for Invasion

As of November, the choice of invasion as the means to remove Noriega was the only one left on the menu. Thus, contingency plans for the invasion were already underway under the code name ‘Blue-Spoon’ by General Maxwell Thurman (US Southern Command). This was to take the form of helicopter assaults on various key local locations. On 15th November, a group of M551 Sheridans (slightly more than a platoon’s worth) from 3-73 Armor was loaded onto a C5A Galaxy transport aircraft for deployment to Panama. This contingent was made up of 4 tanks and a command and control unit. These tanks arrived on the 16th at Howard Air Force Base and were kept undercover to conceal their presence from any prying eyes. When they were seen out, they were seen displaying a repainted bumper, removing the logo of the 82nd Airborne and replacing it with the unit identification for the 5th Infantry Division instead. As this was routine in Panama for jungle training, it was felt, would be less suspicious.

Seen at Howard Air Force Base. Zero armor but plenty of mobility characterized the experimental use of 250 cc Kawasaki KXT off-road bikes and quad bikes (background). Painted matt black, these vehicles were used for scouting purposes. Source: Rottman via DoD.

The plan for their use was for the four tanks to work with a platoon of Marines equipped with the LAV-25 to conduct reconnaissance operations under the unsubtle name ‘Team Armor’.

On top of those tanks in situ in Panama, an ‘armor ready company’ size element was prepared at Fort Bragg, North Carolina to accompany and support the deployment of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. As such, four of the M551 were fitted for low-velocity air delivery (LVAD), whilst other vehicles were prepared for air delivery for a rollout from an aircraft that had landed. This would be the first time the M551 was ever dropped outside of a training environment.

In late November, intelligence reports came in that Noriega and Colombian Drug Cartels were plotting car-bomb attacks on US facilities, which ramped up US security concerns for their forces in Panama. On 30th November, the US upped the ante with the imposition of economic sanctions on Panamanian ships, which prevented them from landing at US ports. This might not seem significant given how small Panama is, but Panama is actually used widely as a flag on convenience. For example, as of 1989, there were 11,440 vessels flying the Panamanian flag and none of these or the 65.6 million gross tonnes of cargo they would carry globally could land at a US port.

A pair of M113s belonging to 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanised) providing security near to the Gorgas Army Community Hospital complex prior to the invasion. Probably November 1989. Source: US National Archives
M113 belonging to the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanised) outside the entrance to Gorgas Army Community Hospital complex. Source: US National Archives

It’s War – Sort Of

On 15th December 1989, Noriega finally jumped the shark in his intimidation game of brinksmanship with the US and declared that a state of war existed with the USA in retaliation for the banning of Panamanian ships from US harbors. This was clearly not a serious or credible declaration of war in the sense of an actual direct conflict due to the gross mismatch in nations’ military capacities but an effort to make sure that Noriega was granted the official titular position as “chief of government”. It was also clearly a response to the shipping blockage which was taken for what it was, a blatant act of aggression against Panama. Such an action could cripple it financially. The Panamanian Assembly, full of Noriega’s loyalists, declared him to be the “maximum leader of the struggle for national liberation”, which perhaps shows the motivation all along – getting the US out of Panama.

Whilst some commentators have post-script, taken this declaration as the justification for the invasion, this is countered by the statements of President Bush’s White House Spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, who declared this ‘war’ as “another hollow step in [Noriega’s] attempt to force his rule on the Panamanian people”. Despite the raised tensions, no additional special precautions were put in place in Panama.

A day is a long time in politics and just a day after this hollow and rather pointless declaration of frustration by the Panamanians, the situation changed dramatically. This was when four off-duty US Officers drove past a Panamanian Defense Forces (P.D.F.) checkpoint and were fired upon. A passenger in that car, US Marine Lt. Paz was killed. Another passenger was wounded by the P.D.F. This shooting death marked the culmination of months of harassment by P.D.F. forces against US troops. For example, in August 1989, the US cited some 900 incidents of harassment (since February 1986) against US military personnel in Panama although it is notable that this was also the month that the US decided to detain 9 men of the P.D.F. and 20 Panamanian civilians who were ‘interfering’ with US military maneuvers in Panama, showing there was at least some tit for tat behavior taking place. Nonetheless, it was the killing of Lt. Paz which persuaded the US it needed to intervene and not the declaration the day before.

“Last Friday, Noriega declared a state of war with the United States. The next day, the P.D.F. shot to death an unarmed American serviceman, wounded another, seized and beat another serviceman, and sexually threatened his wife. Under these circumstances, the President decided he must act to prevent further violence.”
George H. W. Bush, 16th December 1989

Following the death of Lt. Paz, the US initiated its development phase of the invasion plan, making sure its forces were in place and, by 18th December 1989, this was complete.

For the M551s delivered in November, this entailed the fitting of 0.5” caliber heavy machine guns onto the mounts on the turrets and loading Shillelagh missiles. It is noteworthy that rules of engagement given to crews of the M551s were that approval for firing the main gun had to be sought from, and given by, the task force commander due to the high risk of hitting friendly troops or civilians or of causing collateral damage.

It is notable that, under the terms of the Charter of the Organization of American States, Article 18, “[n]o state or group of states has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state.” Article 20 states that no state may militarily occupy another under any situation and, on top of this, the UN Charter says that nations must settle disputes by peaceful means. Both Panama and the USA were signatories to the two treaties. The only real substantive justification for the US invasion was for self-defense in response to an armed attack (Article 51 UN Charter), for which the incident with Lt. Paz was perhaps inflated to be an indicator of a larger and more widespread assault than perhaps an unfortunate accident or action of a few individuals. Had Noriega chosen to condemn the shooting of Lt. Paz publicly, he might have stymied the US justification, but it seems he was as overconfident as always and perhaps never imagined that the US might actually take direct action. Certainly, the poor state of readiness of the P.D.F. on the day of the actual invasion shows that little preparation had actually been made. US intelligence had found out that Noriega’s plan in the event of an invasion was the somewhat casual idea of sending his forces into the wilderness to wage some sort of insurgency. Given that zero effort seems to have been made, even after the ‘declaration’ of war, this seems less of a plan and more of an ill-conceived idea. This is even more surprising given that the Panamanians knew of a plan for the invasion. Extensive activity out of the normal could be easily seen in the Canal Zone, and the news media ensconced in the Marriott Hotel in Panama City had been alerted to mobilize. On top of that, the departure of the 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg was even broadcast on US news the night before. For a former intelligence officer like Noriega, his actions can only be described as so blissfully self-confident. He seems to have thought it was never going to happen or was simply asleep at the wheel. A US Army account of these first hours details that Noriega was busy visiting a sex worker when the attack happened, so he may not have been asleep but was certainly otherwise engaged.

Later analysis of intercepted Panamanian radio traffic and phone calls actually showed that whilst Noriega might have been absent in the decision-making process, the men were not. Roadblocks had been set up leading to La Comandancia (the P.D.F. headquarters building) and individual units and installation commanders of the P.D.F. were notified of an impending attack.

Nonetheless, the fact that American planners for Blue Spoon (known later and more boringly as ‘OPLAN 90’) were concerned over possible dispersal of Panamanian forces into the interior (a concern which may stem in part from the debacle of Vietnam) added impetus for a rapid and multipronged strike to remove all Panamanian forces in one fell swoop.

The wranglings over the legal justification of the invasion amounted to a little bit of this being America’s Suez Canal crisis. The somewhat flimsy legal justifications offered by the US for its actions were perhaps a prelude to a little over a decade later when the next President Bush would have his own invasion of a sovereign nation on spurious grounds to contend with.

20th December 1989

With the background of steadily escalating tensions between Panama and the US, Bush’s hawkishness, and Noriega’s naivety and overconfidence, the stage was set for the invasion. Blue Spoon (OPLAN 90) was officially Operation Just Cause, as military planners felt it more fitting than ‘Operation Blue Spoon’ although perhaps this ignores the whole point of a code name. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the change in the operation’s name, it was put into action on 20th December 1989.

That day, President Bush ordered 12,000 extra troops to Panama to supplement the 13,600 already there with four publicly stated objectives:

1 – Safeguard American lives
2 – Protect the democratic election process
3 – To arrest Noriega for drug trafficking and bring him to the USA for trials
4 – Protect the Panama Canal Treaty

The invasion began at 0100 hours on 20th December 1989, a time selected by General Stiner as being the most likely to achieve total surprise and also ensure no commercial traffic at Torrijos airport (Torrijos was a civilian airport next to Tocumen airfield, which was a military airbase) which might get in the way. Led by aircraft from Task Force HAWK, 160th Special Operations Aviation Group, 1st Battalion 228th Aviation Regiment (based out of Fort Kobbe) along with 1st Battalion of the 82 Airborne Division deployed across Panama.

US troops deployed included Rangers / Paratroopers, light infantry, and Navy Marines and Seals, totaling some 26,000 soldiers involved in a complex scenario involving a simultaneous attack on 27 targets.

Arranged against this US force was the Panamanian Defense Force, with just two infantry battalions and ten independent infantry companies. Armor-wise, the Panamanians had 38 Cadillac Gage armored cars purchased from the USA. The first of those vehicles arrived in Panama from the USA in 1973, consisting of 12 of the V-150 APC variant, and four V-150(90) variants. In 1983, a further delivery arrived in the form of three V-300 Mk.2 IFV variants, and 9 of the V-300 APCs, including a Command Post vehicle and an ARV vehicle.

The three V-300 Mk.2 IFV vehicles were to be fitted with the Cockerill CM-90 turret and gun imported from Belgium in 1983 and meant that, at least on paper, Panama had a significant anti-tank threat that had to be contended with.

P.D.F. V-300 armored car with 90 mm gun. Seen circa 1985.
Source: tobi_2362 via Fuerzas Armada de Panama.

The Cadillac Gage ‘Commando’ was first produced in the early 1960s and was available in a wide range of options. The V-150 was an upgrade to the original V-100 and was actually based on the V-200 and fitted with either a diesel or petrol engine. The vehicles use a drive system similar to the popular M34-series of trucks and capable of up to 100 km/h on the road. Protected by a monocoque welded steel shell made from Cadaloy*, the vehicle (4 wheeled version) weighed just 7 tonnes and yet was tough enough to resist 7.62 mm ammunition at 90 degrees and 0.50” caliber ammunition at 45 degrees. The standard 10-tonne V-150 APC was a four-wheel drive vehicle with no turret, a single-roof-mounted machine gun, a crew of two, and space in the back for up to 6 men. The ‘90’ version of the V-150 was the same basic vehicle but fitted with a small turret containing a single 20 mm cannon.

[* A type of high hardness steel plate (~500 Brinell)]

The later V-300s were longer (6.4 m instead of 5.7 m), as the chassis had been extended so that a third axle for two more wheels could be added. This allowed for greater internal space for troops in the APC version and also for a greater load capacity. The IFV version came with firing ports cut into the upper hull sides in the troop compartment and could carry 8 men in reasonable comfort in the back. It was onto this V-300 IFV variant that the Cockerill CM-90 was mounted. Panama bought the 15-tonne Mk.II version of the V-300, which featured a larger fuel tank and an improved power train over the earlier Mk.I.

P.D.F. roadblock using a Cadillac-Gage V-300 armored recovery vehicle (ARV) of P.D.F. Battalion 2000.
Source: Still image from news on Channel TV-13, Panama

The Cadillac-Gage armored cars were robust, cheap, and mechanically simple enough that these vehicles were ideal for a military with a modest budget but who needed some armored firepower. Modified with the addition of the 90 mm Cockerill turret, Panama effectively had wheeled tanks and, if they could be deployed properly, could constitute a genuine threat to US ground forces and their own armored elements.

Panama also had its own special forces units, including 11 Battalions de la Dignidad paramilitary battalions and some nondescript ‘leftist’ units. Membership of such units was somewhat informal with a total of between 2,500 and 5,000 active members in total. Their value as a combat force was extremely marginal.

Highly mobile thanks to the off-road motorbikes and well-armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, this member of the 7th Infantry Company P.D.F. known as ‘Macho de Monte’ is barely in uniform, with just a black tee-shirt and blue jeans. The ability of such forces to move rapidly and possibly harass US forces meant that it was vital for US forces to control as far as possible the movement of Panamanian forces. Source: Armed Forces of Panama

The Panamanian police, known as the Fuerza de Policia (F.P.), was also armed and consisted of around 5,000 personnel with small arms, although two public order or ‘civil disturbances’ units were within this Police force, known officially as the 1st and 2nd Companias de Antimotines (English: 1st and 2nd Anti Riot Companies) and more casually as the ‘Doberman’ and ‘Centurion’ companies.

There was also the less visible Departamento de Nacional de Investigaciones (D.E.N.I.) (English: National Department of Investigation). This innocuous-sounding organization was made up of around 1,500 personnel and was little more than a barely disguised secret police force. Other smaller units available and armed within Panama included the Guardia Presidencial (English: Presidential Guard), Guardia Penitenciaria (English: Penitentiary Guard), Fuerza de Police Portuario (English: Port Guard Police), and the Guardia Forestal (English: Forest Guard).

Panamanian troops of 2nd Battalion ‘Paz’ take part in an exercise in civil clothes to pretend to be a guerillas force. The vehicle is an ex-US military M151 Jeep and is fitted with a Czechoslovak 7.92 mm ZB-53 machine gun – a weapon a British tanker of WW2 might recognize as a BESA machine gun. Source: Rottman via P.D.F.

The Panamanian Navy, or ‘Fuerza da Marina Nacional’ (FMN) (English: National Naval Force), was headquartered at Fort Amador, with vessels berthed at Balboa and Colon. It was a small force of just 500 or so troops and operated 8 landing craft and 2 logistics support ships made from converted landing craft, as well as a single troop transport.

Heavy machine gun-armed Panamanian patrol craft P-201 seen with the Bridge of the Americas in the background circa 1988. Source: Jamurillo photo

There was also a single Naval Infantry company, the ‘1st Compania de Infanteria de Marina) (English: 1st Naval Infantry Company), based at Coco Solo, and a small force of Naval Commandos (Peloton Comandos de Marina) based out of Fort Amador.

One of the FMN landing craft offloading its cargo of Fuerza de Marina Nacional de la Infantería de Marina (English: National Marine Infantry Force) at Punta Culebra Calzada de Amador, circa 1987. Source: Jamurillo

The Fuerza Aérea Panameña (FAP) (English: Panamanian Air Force) was a tiny force of just 500 personnel. It operated 21 Bell UH-1 helicopters (2nd Airborne Infantry Company) as well as some training, VIP, and transport aircraft. This force amounted, across all aircraft including trainers, to just 38 fixed-wing aircraft on top of those helicopters. It did, however, also control a series of ZPU-4 anti-aircraft systems.

Captured Panamanian ZPU-4 air defense system being examined by forces from 5th US Infantry Division after the invasion. Source: Armed Forces of Panama.
Panamanian Army, East-German made truck fitted out for air defense with a single ZPU-1 14.5 mm heavy machine gun.Source: Ken Sabin

The US, on the other hand, had a substantial military with an enormous budget and huge technical and vehicle resources at its disposal. American forces had a stock of the venerable M113 armored personnel carrier which had been in service since the 1960s. Looking like a tracked shoebox, with 50 mm of aluminum armor, the M113 was an ideal transport for moving goods or men from A to B, on or off-road whilst being protected from small arms fire.

The wheeled LAV (1983) series was a relatively new vehicle in the US inventory. Delivered to units from 1983 to 1984, the LAV had a crew of 3 with seats for an additional 4 to 6 troops in the back. At just over 11 tonnes, the 8 x 8 platform, built under license in Canada by GM Canada, was a license-built vehicle originally designed by the Swiss firm of MOWAG. Featuring a basic hull made from 12.7 mm thick aluminum, the vehicle was fitted as standard with a steel-applique armor kit providing protection from small arms fire and shell splinters. Ballistic protection was rated up to that of the Soviet 14.5 mm AP bullet at 300 m. Powered by a General Motors 6v53T V6 diesel engine delivering 275 hp powered the LAV. It could reach speeds of up to 100 km/h on the road and 10 km/h in the water when used amphibiously. Various armament options existed for the LAV as a platform, including mortar, TOW anti-tank missiles, command and control, recovery, air defense, or a general-purpose APC with a 25 mm M242 cannon and 7.62 mm machine gun in a small turret. Of note is that, although the gun-version was fully stabilized, no vehicle was issued to units fitted with a thermal sight until 1996 – after the Panamanian invasion.

USMC LAV-25 during exercises in Panama before the invasion.
Source: US Army

Four US battalions were issued with the LAVs, including one reserve battalion. These four were designated as LAV battalions until 1988. In 1988, the LAV designation for the battalion was changed to ‘Light Armored Infantry’ (LAI), a term which stayed in use until they were rebranded once more in 1993 as ‘Light Armored Reconnaissance’ (LAR). The first operational use of the LAV by US forces would be in the 1989 invasion of Panama.

Later to form part of Task Force Semper Fidelis, Marine Force Panama (MFP) included 2nd Light Armored Infantry Battalion made up of four companies, A, B, C, and D. A and B Companies were used as part of Operation Nimrod Dancer, C Company in Operation Promote Liberty for the post-invasion nation-building, and D Company in Operation Just Cause – the actual invasion itself.

Prior to the invasion, A Company 2nd LAI arrived in Panama and used its complement of LAVs to provide escort duty for convoys, reconnaissance, and patrolling, but also served as a rapid reaction force if required. B Company 2nd LAI arrived next and, like A Company, conducted reconnaissance and security operations. D Company 2nd LAI was the third company to be deployed from 2nd LAI in Panama. This company was deployed as a show of force against the Panamanian ‘Dignity’ Battalions (a form of irregular militia which liked to set up ad-hoc roadblocks and carry out general intimidation of US forces and citizens). Prior to the invasion, D Company managed to achieve success in this work by accident. A crowd, whipped up to create disorder and possibly attack American interests, was held at a roadblock by a LAV on D Co. 2nd LAI. When the gunner negligently discharged a high explosive round from the 25 mm cannon and decapitated a telegraph pole, this crowd suddenly decided that courage in the face of armored fighting vehicles was not something it had and quickly dispersed.

On other occasions, they were not so lucky, and, multiple times, Marines had to retreat to the safety of their LAVs as hostile crowds beat on the vehicles with sticks and stones. In one encounter, a LAV was actually deliberately rammed by a pickup truck, damaging the front right wheel. These incidents continued to get worse right up to the death of Lt. Paz.

The Go

The go order for operations was given by President Bush on 17th December, with the invasion set for 0100 hours, 20th December. Efforts at secrecy seem to have been somewhat half-hearted as, the night before the invasion, there were certainly rumors abound. Some P.D.F. forces were already responding, although it has to be said that this appears to have been totally uncoordinated from the top. With invasion set for 0100 hours, some P.D.F. forces actually infiltrated the US airbase at Albrook and attacked US special forces as they were boarding helicopters destined for the attack on the Pacora River Bridge. Wounding two US troops, the Panamanians withdrew.

A second preemptive action took place at Fort Cimarron, where a column of vehicles was seen heading towards the city. Other troops were seen moving towards Pacora Bridge and the actual 0100 hours ‘H’ hour was advanced by 15 minutes to try and prevent these small P.D.F. forces creating a lot of problems for the great invasion plan.

Overall operations map for the invasion of Panama, 20th December 1989.
Source: US Army

US Invasion Forces

The US strikes on Panama would be multiple and coordinated using various task forces. Joint Task Force South, responsible for command and control of tactical operations, created four ground task forces; Atlantic, Pacific, Bayonet, and Semper Fidelis. These names very much indicated the source and type of the task force. Other smaller task forces were created for specific targets, such as Black Devil for Fort Amador (operating under Task Force Bayonet).

Special forces assigned to TFSF were color-coded, with Black being 3rd Battalion 7th Special Forces, Green being Army Delta Force, Red (Rangers), and Blue and White (SEALs). For some of these, the incursion was performed with little more than crossing the road, such was the proximity of the US forces to the invasion targets assigned.

Task Force Atlantic (TFA) in Action – Madden Dam, Gamboa, Renacer Prison and Cerro Tigre

TFA, under the command of Colonel Keith Kellogg and consisting of 3rd Battalion of the 504th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, would be carried in OH-58A helicopters rather than the usual UH-1, as those were already allocated for other duties.

Area of operations for Task Force Atlantic. Source: US Army

Madden Dam (TFA)

Tasked with the seizure of strategic locations, the first destination was the Madden Dam. Retaining the Chagres River and forming the 75 m deep Lake Alajuela, the dam was a key element in balancing the water system of the Panama Canal. It was also a road bridge for the highway connecting both sides of Panama and a hydro-electric generating plant, so the loss of this facility could potentially cripple both the canal and the country. A Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Infantry moved overnight 32 km to seize the dam. They arrived to find the few P.D.F. guards ineffective and they quickly gave up with no casualties. TFA’s first key goal was taken.

View of the Madden Dam from a US helicopter around the time of the invasion. Source: US Army

Of note at Madden Dam is that, although it was one of the first locations seized during the invasion, it was also the last. Late afternoon on the 23rd, around 30 men believed to be from a Dignity Battalion and still armed, but carrying a white flag, approached the US forces still guarding the dam. When the US paratroopers approached them to collect their weapons they were fired upon and had to fire back. In this last exchange of fire, 10 American soldiers were wounded and 5 Panamanians were dead.

Next on 20th December, after Madden Dam, was the town of Gamboa, where 160 US citizens who worked for the Canal Commission lived. A Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, was landed nearby at McGrath Field by a single UH-1C with 11 men and a pair of CH-47s with 25 men each. These troops quickly moved to disarm a small P.D.F. detachment and take over the barracks of the Fuerzas Femininas (FUFEM) (English: Female counter-intelligence soldiers). Most of the women of the FUFEM fled into the jungle. By 0300 hours, just 2 hours into the invasion, the town of Gamboa and its US citizens were secured. Fire had been directed against the helicopters as they came in, but as they were blacked out, none were hit and there were no casualties.

Renacer Prison (TFA)

The next target was the Renacer Prison, a relatively small facility on the other side of the Chagres River guarded by around 20 to 25 Panamanians. At least two American citizens and a number of Panamanian political prisoners were known to be housed there. Attacking it was C Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division along with elements of 307th Engineer Battalion (Demolition), 1097th Transportation Company (landing craft), and three military police. The prison was the site where political opponents to Manuel Noriega were held, ranging from civilians who protested, to political opponents, all the way up to some of those who had taken part in the failed coup the previous year.

It was felt imperative to the US that these prisoners be freed, so an assault had to be actioned. Using helicopters from the landing ship Fort Sherman, two UH-1s from B Company, 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment would land inside the prison compound (each with 11 men of 2nd platoon), with a third UH-1 along with an OH-58C remaining airborne, circling around outside as support.

The remainder of 2nd Platoon (armed with M60 machine guns and AT-4 anti-tank weapons), along with 3rd Platoon, were then landed by Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) on the banks of the canal next to the prison. The OH-58C and UH-1 flying support outside the compound provided fire support from their 20 mm cannons and 2.75” unguided rockets. A company sniper located on the OH-58C provided additional security.

The sniper subdued the guard in the prison’s tower, followed by suppressive fire courtesy of the 20 mm cannon from an AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunship. The company moved in and resistance was intense but undirected and uncoordinated, even as the infantry entered the prison and released 64 prisoners. In a virtually perfect operation, the complex was fully captured within minutes with no US or prisoner fatalities. Five Panamanian guards were dead and 17 more were taken prisoner. Other than minor injuries for four US troops, six of the prisoners being hit, a single Cobra helicopter receiving a single bullet strike, and an incident with a 3 m high fence which was not on the plans and had to be cut with bayonets, the plan was a success.

Cerro Tigre (TFA)

The final objective for TFA was Cerro Tigre, where a major P.D.F. logistics hub was co-located with an electrical distribution centre. After all the previous successes, it was perhaps a pity for TFA that Cero Tigre was a mess. The helicopters to be used in the landing, CH-47s and UH-1s, had problems that delayed the landing. The two UH-1s had arrived on time at 0100 hours, but the pair of CH-47s were delayed. The 0100 ‘surprise’ was generally over anyway, but this extra 5-minute delay further alerted forces on the ground to the approach of the US troops (B Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division). The result was that P.D.F. forces were firing at the US forces as the helicopters dropped them off on the golf course. Luckily for the Americans, no one was killed and no helicopters were shot down. Nonetheless, the element of surprise was gone and the guardhouse stubbornly resisted the US approach. It is perhaps fortunate that this assault counted with an AH-1 Cobra gunship which supported their operations by engaging multiple suspected P.D.F. positions with 2.75” rocket fire.

Two US soldiers were wounded in the action, possibly by shell fragments from friendly fire, and the P.D.F. forces eventually relented and melted away into the jungle. This was not the end of the resistance around Cerro Tigre. Having taken the outer buildings, the American forces still had to occupy the main compound and yet more gunfire was exchanged. Here, the fire and manoeuver skills of the infantry proved their worth and no one was killed, with the P.D.F. forces deciding discretion was needed and again disappeared into the jungle. An operation which had started rather messily had worked out well despite the flirtation with disaster.

Coco Solo (TFA)

Operations for TFA in the south were equally successful. The military police detachment assigned to TFA quickly closed off the entrance to Coco Solo Naval Station at Colon 30 minutes prior to H hour, shooting one Panamanian guard in the process. Unfortunately, this gunshot alerted the 1st Compania de Infanteria de Marina (English: 1st Naval Infantry Company), the troops of which moved to leave their barracks and head towards their motorboats (armed with machine guns and 20 mm cannons). A company from 4th Battalion, 17th Infantry had to rush to their positions around Coco Solo as gunfire began in the area.

The Caribbean coast of Panama into the Atlantic Ocean showing the key locations and main attacks of the invasion. Source: US Army

Two boats belonging to the Naval Infantry managed to get out of the harbor and, despite US gunfire, managed to get to sea. By the time the US forces had cleared out the Coco Solo station, 2 Panamanian troops were dead and another 27 captured. The rest were presumed to have escaped in the boats or into town.

During the security phase of the seizure of the station just outside the City of Colon, one soldier was killed by Panamanian gunfire. Nonetheless, the routes in and out of Colon were secure by 0115 hours. In total, 12 Panamanian troops had been killed. The city, however, was a problem. There was significant lawlessness, with looting meaning a lot of civilians were present on the streets. This was a heavily populated area and, although P.D.F. forces were known to still be in the city, two operations to clear the city had to be cancelled for fear of civilian casualties.

The situation was stabilised by a phone call from a former P.D.F. officer to troops still in Colon to encourage them to give up. On the morning of the 22nd, those 200 did exactly that. With the risk of a gun battle in the city over, US forces entered the city from the seaward and landward sides and restored order, with the notable exception of the city’s Customs Police HQ building.

A US infantry company, supported by artillery, shot at the building until, seeing the futility of holding out, these forces also saw sense and gave themselves up. The result, however, was that Colon was not officially under US control until the end of the 22nd.

Fort Espinar (TFA)

The P.D.F. forces at Fort Espinar were likewise problematic. Even though the commander of the P.D.F.’s 8th Company, based there, had fled when he found out about the attack, his men were far more stoic. This force refused to surrender even after US forces liberally sprayed their barracks with 20 mm M61 Vulcan gun-fire. It was not until an offer of surrender was made that 40 P.D.F. troops surrendered, leaving one US soldier wounded. A second attack on a P.D.F. training facility nearby left another 40 P.D.F. soldiers in custody and 2 wounded, although 6 US troops were injured by a misthrown hand grenade.

Close up map of Colon to Fort Espinar showing TFA area of operations. Source: US Army

The resistance at Coco Solo and Fort Espinar was, however, an exception. The other targets for TFA fell quickly without much incident, meaning that, within just a couple hours, the naval station, fort, France Airfield (Colon’s small airport), and Coco Solo hospital were all secure.

Task Force Pacific in Action – Torrijos/Tocumen Airport, Panama Viejo, Fort Cimarron, and Tinajitas

Torrijos/Tocumen Airfields (TFP and TFR)

The airports would be seized by Task Force Red and then serve as a base from which to launch Task Force Pacific to their targets. Troops from C Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment with 1st Battalion, 75th Rangers found little opposition at the large commercial Torrijos Airport. At 0100 hours, two AH-6 gunships supported by a single AC-130 gunship began firing at targets, taking out the control tower and guard towers in a barrage lasting 3 minutes. At 0103 hours, four companies of Rangers parachuted in from 150 m with the goal of securing the airport within 45 minutes so that elements of the 82nd Airborne could arrive. There was a relatively brief and inconsequential exchange of fire and, on schedule, within an hour of landing, the airport was in the Rangers’ hands, having suffered just two wounded, but having killed 5 and captured 21 more.

The two airfields at Tocumen and Torrijos showing US objectives for Task Force Red.
Source: US Army
Objectives for Task Force Pacific. Source: US Army
Aerial view of the buildings at Tocumen Airfield, including the air force barracks. The aircraft on the right appears to be a CASA C-212 Aviocar, as used by the Panamanian forces for delivering troops by parachute. Source: US Army

The arrival of the 82nd Airborne was a problem. Bad weather in the US had caused delays in their arrival and, instead of dropping in one giant wave at 0145 hours, they were in fact dropped in five different waves from 0200 to 0500 hours, providing a tempting target for the Panamanians. Thankfully for the planners, the problem did not result in any casualties.

Aerial view of the barracks of 2nd Company PDF at Tocumen Airport. Source: US Army

There, the close proximity of parachute drops over an area in which helicopters were in use meant there was a risk of unpleasant accidents involving helicopter blades and slowly descending troops. Somewhat thankfully, no one was hurt. A bigger problem was the desire to airdrop in their heavy equipment consisting of the M551 Sheridans and M998 HMMWVs, which went wrong. For a start, these vehicles had to be dropped away from the troops for fear of the obvious consequences of dropping both in the same place. This led to a delay in recovery of the equipment, which was not finished until 0900 hours, with some of it found outside the airport in the long grass. Second was damage from the drop. One M551 was utterly wrecked when it landed far too hard and a second was damaged. Of the M998 HMMWVs dropped, which were to haul light artillery, four of them were damaged in the drop. By 0900 hours, when the equipment had been found and recovered, this force was seriously diminished, with 2 tanks down, 4 HMMWVs damaged, and just two of the M102 howitzers operational. One vehicle was not recovered until 29th December (9 days after the attack), as it had been dropped in a marsh.

This M551 recovered to the airport is in a sorry state, having landed far too hard, smashing the suspension.
Source: Pinterest

The delay in the landings of troops and equipment meant that the planned ‘hop’ by helicopter to their next operational goal was also seriously delayed. Helicopters clearly could not start moving even after the first wave of troops arrived, as more might be dropped on top of them. It was not until 4 hours after the attack should have happened, at 0615 hours, that troops from the 82nd got to Panama Viejo.

Despite the problems and delays, by the end of 20th, the primary international and military airfields at Torrijos and Tocumen were firmly in US hands. Overnight, into the 21st, another brigade of the 7th Infantry Division was landed at Torrijos to reinforce the US presence and then shipped to Rio Hato airfield to support and relieve the Rangers who had seized it. The rest of the 7th Infantry Division (along with various other military support elements, like communications and logistics forces) was landed at Howard Air Force Base by the 24th to provide additional security required by what was now an Army of occupation in Panama.

Panama Viejo (TFP)

The P.D.F. barracks at Panama Viejo stood on a promontory sticking out into the Bay of Panama. They housed around 250 troops, along with around 70 of their special forces related to counter-terrorist (UESAT) and commando units, and 180 men from 1st Cavalry Squadron, with a number armored vehicles.

Panama Viejo was to be seized in a simultaneous attack in conjunction with the attack on Tinajitas and Fort Cimarron. Thanks to delays, the attack on Panama Viejo did not start until 0650 hours, by which time it was daylight and there was zero element of surprise on the side of the Americans.

Aerial view of Panama Viejo barracks next to the ruins which would later be used as an operational HQ by 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division. Source: US Army

Straddling Panama Viejo were to be two rather small landing zones named Bobcat (north) and Lion (south) for the 2nd Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry (Parachute Infantry Regiment), 82nd Airborne Division. These troops arrived in 18 UH-60 Blackhawks, supported by 4 AH-1 Cobras and a pair of AH-64 Apaches from Team Wolf Apache. The troops were fired upon by P.D.F. forces as they were being delivered, but the fire was mostly ineffectual.

They were to be delivered into these landing zones in two equal halves from 9 UH-60s at each location, starting at 0650 hours. The lack of effective opposition encountered was fortunate, as the first approach of troops at the landing zone closest to the Bay of Panama managed to land the paratroopers into the mudflats (LZ Lion) live on CNN. It was not until the helicopters were leaving that some small arms were directed at the helicopters. However, unable to identify the source, they did not return fire.

The UH-60 helicopters from 7th Infantry Division (Light) and 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, which had dropped them off, had to come to rescue the troops stranded in the mud whilst some more were saved by Panamanian civilians forming human chains to stop them drowning in the morass. The presence of these civilians was obviously welcome for the stranded and somewhat helpless soldiers, who were sitting ducks for any P.D.F. forces who might want to shoot them. They also hampered the operation, as helicopter gunships could no longer fire on P.D.F. forces for fear of hitting the civilians.

The second landing zone went slightly better. They did not trap their men in an impassable bog, which was good, but did manage to deliver them into elephant grass over 2 meters high meaning they could not see a thing and were effectively lost. Just as with the first landings, some small arms fire was received on the way back. This fire did not bring any aircraft down but three helicopters were so badly damaged they could not be reused without repair.

It was not until 1040 hours that day that Panama Viejo had been seized and firing from P.D.F. forces ceased. In total, only around 20 P.D.F. forces had even been at Panama Viejo and the rest had left hours earlier with their commander. Had some semblance of resistance at this location been mounted and led on the ground, then instead of three damaged helicopters, it could have been a slaughter. US planners got very lucky. Seemingly, many P.D.F. troops did not even know that an invasion had even started, as some were arrested by US forces the next morning as they arrived for work in their cars.

Tinajitas Barracks (TFP)

The barracks at Tinajitas was home to the P.D.F. 1st Infantry Company, known as the ‘Tigers’, who had both 81 and 120 mm mortars. Located on a strategic hill (Tinajitas Hill), there were numerous electrical lines running nearby. This meant a very hazardous approach route for any helicopter, which would not only have to land forces on the edge of the sloping hillside, but under the observation of the forces in their elevated position on the hill.

Aerial view of Tinajitas barracks, home of 1st Company P.D.F. Source: US Army

A single UH-60 landed on a hill to the west of the barracks, near to a Baha’i temple, where it dropped a mortar squad to support the attack and also to deny the use of that high ground to the P.D.F. Six UH-60s were to go to the other landing zone near to the barracks, supported by three AH-1s.

Even prior to landing, these helicopters were seen and the defenders made sure of a hot reception with heavy fire from the ground. They had taken positions within a shanty town near to the barracks. The presence of so many civilians meant that the US crews were reluctant to return fire unless the target was clearly hampering the landing. Nonetheless, and despite this heavy fire, the paratroopers were landed, although two helicopter crewmen were hit by small arms fire and lightly wounded, along with 3 infantrymen who were seriously wounded.

A second mission was even more hazardous, using just 5 UH-60s, as 1 had to be diverted to Howard Air Force Base as a medevac for the wounded. Every helicopter was hit multiple times by ground fire during this second lift. More through luck than anything else, none were lost.

A combat team of AH-64 Apaches from Team Wolf Apache, along with a single OH-58C, supported these landings at Tinajitas and all three helicopters received hits from the ground.

Relieved by a second helicopter combat team, the source of the ground fire was identified, with 11 P.D.F. troops killed by 30 mm AWS fire at a range of 2,833 meters (ranged by laser). The stiff resistance put up at Tinajitas barracks in what was a confusing and somewhat messy attack had not lasted long. The barracks had been taken at a loss of 2 American forces killed and numerous wounded.

Fort Cimarron (TFP)

The final target of operations for TFP was Fort Cimarron. The fort was home to P.D.F. Battalion 2000, with around 200 men and which was equipped with Cadillac-Gage armored cars (V-150 and V-300), ZPU-4 air defense weapons, and heavy weapons, like 81 and 120 mm mortars. The ZPU-4 was a 14.5 mm heavy machine gun system, using four weapons on a common mount. This was a devastatingly dangerous weapon deployed both for support fire on the ground and also for shooting down helicopters. Despite the loss of some vehicles from this Battalion at Pacora Bridge, there was still a substantial military force there and also an unknown number of these armored vehicles.

Cadillac Gage armored cars of Battalion 2000 on parade at Fort Cimarron in 1988. At least 7 vehicles can be seen and the two closest to the camera are a V-300 (left) and V-150 (right), both armed with a heavy machine gun in a small turret. Source: todo por la patria

Assaulting Fort Cimarron would be soldiers from 4th Battalion, 325th Infantry delivered by eleven UH-60s. 6 of them headed to the road to the south of Fort Cimarron and the other 6 landed to the west, forming a classic pincer maneuver. Having dropped off the troops, all 12 helicopters would then leave and come back with a second wave. Little resistance was met during these landings, but there were some P.D.F. forces there who continued to shoot at and harass US forces. However, the majority of forces had simply left, either in the attack at Pacora Bridge or simply left the Fort prior to the American attack. It was to take all day on 20th December to clear the Fort building by building, as this was not completed until midnight on 21st December.

Knocked out Recovery version of the Cadillac Gage V-300 armored car, probably pictured at Fort Cimarron. Source: Edward McCrane

Task Force Gator/Task Force Bayonet (TFG/TFB) – La Comandancia

La Comandancia was, in many ways, the heart of the P.D.F., as both the seat of power of Noriega and also a base for 7th Company P.D.F., known as the Macho del Monte. They were staunchly loyal to Noriega.

Things started poorly for TFG, with Panamanian police forces seeing their movements in preparation for the H hour attack and opening fire on the US forces at 0021 hours. The exchange of fire hit no one, but the attack was not going to be a surprise.

During the attack on La Comandancia, Task Force Gator, consisting of 4th Battalion, 6th Mechanized Infantry was under the operational control of Task Force Green, the same task force which was running the operation against Carcel Modelo Prison. Task Force Gator would therefore also be supported in its actions against La Comandancia by Special Mission Units, with 4th Psychological Operations Group, 1st Special Operations Wing and 160th Special Operations Aviation Detachment.

The proximity of the Carcel Modelo prison to La Comandancia is clear in this map of operations for Task Force Gator. Source: US Army

The P.D.F. forces defending La Comandancia had already started some preparation in the hours before the invasion, with roadblocks including one to the north, which was made from two dump trucks placed across the road. With H hour pulled forward by 15 minutes, the attack was led by Team Wolf Apache using their AH-64 helicopters. They took out several 2 ½ ton trucks with 30 mm cannon fire and a pair of V-300 armored cars with Hellfire missiles. An AC-130 gunship used its 105 mm gun to aid in the suppression of La Comandancia, along with further helicopter-launched Hellfire missiles.

As the helicopters of Team Wolf Apache attacked La Comandancia, the troops of the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry set off from their side of the canal zone, less than a mile away. Using the M113 APC, they immediately encountered small roadblocks and small arms fire, although the direction of the fire could often not be established. In such a heavily built-up area and reluctant to randomly fire into civilian buildings, little US return fire was forthcoming. Either way, the small arms fire was of little consequence to the bulletproof M113s and their cargo of soldiers.

Despite the loss of the element of surprise, things did go better than may have been expected. While there was fire from P.D.F. troops, the armor of the M113 prevented any injuries and the roadblock P.D.F. troops had thrown up with cars was simply crushed and driven over. The same was not true to the north, where the M113s, at high speed, turned sharply onto Avenue B to find the dump truck roadblock. Traveling too fast to stop, the lead M113 careened into the side of one truck. The following M113 likewise saw the obstacle too late but it managed to swerve to the side to avoid crashing into the back of vehicle 1. The third vehicle then plowed straight into the back of vehicle 2. The result was a large mess, an even larger roadblock, and one crippled M113 with an injured soldier inside.

The P.D.F. plan was an ambush at this site and their roadblock worked too well. The US soldiers had an abundance of cover they would otherwise not have had approaching the roadblock in a more conventional manner. In the gun battle which followed, the roof gunner on one M113 was hit by P.D.F. forces and killed.

The second TFG M113 column also found their route blocked with a pair of dump trucks but managed to just drive around them, They also ran into fierce resistance from P.D.F. forces in a moving firefight. One soldier was struck and wounded and an RPG fired by P.D.F. forces struck one of the M113s but caused no injuries. The column was also engaged by a pair of P.D.F. 75 mm recoilless rifles but also evaded any injuries. The route to La Comandancia was open and these US forces would be able to fire on that compound.

The M113 proved just as valuable when they came to the rescue of the Delta Force troops who had been shot down with Kurt Muse from the raid on Carcel Modelo Prison. The same ability to ignore small arms fire was not true of the helicopters and an OH-58C was hit and crashed. Only the pilot survived the incident.

Crashed OH-58 at Fort Amador Source:

As American forces closed in on La Comandancia, resistance became more fierce and a column of three M113s moving up to the wall in order to plant charges to force an entry was repeatedly hit by around 20 rounds of what was believed to be enemy fire. The lead vehicle suffered such damage that it was disabled and the second one was knocked out by being set on fire. The infantry platoons of 3 M113s now all had to pile into a single vehicle with several men wounded in order to evacuate the scene.

It was not until later that it became clear they had been hit by 40 mm cannon fire from the AC-130 overhead, which had taken the M113s for enemy armored vehicles. This was compounded by smoke from fires from the compound and, rather than risk further blue-on-blue incidents, it fell to fire support delivered from Quarry Heights around 450 m away to try to crush the defense. This fire support came in the form of LAV’s of the USMC using 25 mm cannons, and also from the 152 mm guns of the two M551 Sheridans (C Company, 3rd Battalion (Airborne), 73rd Armor) positioned on Ancon Hill. There, these M551s fired 13 rounds. Just like with the AC-130 and helicopter gunships, however, the smoke obscured the target to such an extent that even these had to cease fire for risk of collateral damage or deaths. Airstrikes by helicopter and AC-130 gunships finally stopped the attack, as by now the building was well ablaze.

M113 armored personnel carriers seen 20th December 1989 in Panama.
Source: South Carolina National Guard.

It was not until a deadline to surrender, given in Spanish, had expired that the Americans fired again. This time it was a ‘show of force’ using a 105 mm howitzer in direct fire mode against an empty building nearby. This did the trick and, by sunset on 20th December, the defense of La Comandancia had effectively ceased. Most of the remaining P.D.F. troops in the barracks very sensibly gave up. There were, however, still some isolated P.D.F. forces resisting in the base across various buildings and these had to be cleared carefully to avoid hurting any civilians who may have been trapped. To aid in this task, the battalion commander brought in a pair of M113 APCs (attached to the 5th Infantry Division) to deal with any sniper positions with their 0.50” caliber machine guns. These would support a Ranger company brought over from Torrijos Airport, which went in and cleared the smoldering building to be sure P.D.F. opposition was over.

American troops during the assault on the burning La Comandancia building. Note that both soldiers can be seen using the M16AS1 rifle, one with a bayonet affixed and the other with the M203 grenade launcher sung underneath.
Source: US Army

Although no UH-60s were hit by ground fire during the operation, one OH-58C was hit by automatic weapons fire from the ground and crashed near La Comandancia. Ground fire against aircraft was found to be generally ineffective, as the helicopters were flying at night, with the pilots using night-vision goggles and the ground forces firing at them having none – they simply fired blindly, as all the helicopters were flying blacked out.

A pair of Mercedes Benz internal security vehicles, known as ‘Smurfs’ or ‘Pitufo’, originally belonging to the 1st Company Public Order Unit of the Police, also known as the ‘Dobermans’. Here, they are seen burned out at the Central Barracks (La Comandancia), in Panama City after the American attack on 20th December 1989. Source: Armed Forces of Panama

The ‘Smurfs’ burned out at Central Barracks, showing the original blue paint below the burned-out upper portions. The central barracks where these were located was transferred from the 1st Company Police Public Order unit to the 7th Infantry Company P.D.F. known as ‘Macho de Monte’. The scorching from the fire is obvious. Source: Armed Forces of Panama

Task Force Black Devil/Task Force Bayonet (TFBD/TFB) – Fort Amador

Fort Amador was a bit of an oddity during the entirety of the hostilities between the two countries before the invasion, and this continued on the first day as well. This was because American forces from 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (Airborne), and P.D.F. forces in the form of 5th Infantry Company shared the base all along. The primary goal of Task Force Black Devil was the security of the base and the safety of US civilians in it.

Two companies from 1st Battalion, A and B, would be used for Task Force Black Devil (C Company was already part of Task Force Gator), along with a squad from 193rd Infantry Brigade’s 59th Engineer Company, D Battery, 320th Field Artillery, and a military police platoon. They would be equipped with all of the usual infantry equipment, but also a detachment of 8 M113 APCs, with two of them fitted with TOW missiles and a single 105 mm towed field gun from the Field Artillery unit. Aerial support came in the form of 3 AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships and a single OH-58. An AC-130 gunship was also available if required.

In the days running up to the invasion, the M113s used by TFBD were hidden on the base amongst the golf carts, which apparently was sufficient to disguise them.

With the onset of the invasion and gunfire and explosions rocking the city, the P.D.F. forces in Fort Amador made their move. Some of the P.D.F. forces took a bus and a car and tried to leave whilst, at the same time, two P.D.F. guards tried to arrest two American guards. The P.D.F. guards were killed and, as the bus and car headed towards the gate, where these men were, it was shot at, killing the driver. It cleared the gate but crashed outside the Fort. The car was fired upon and crashed within the base, killing 3 of the 7 occupants and wounding the others. With that, the gate to Fort Amador was left in US hands and blockaded.

The front gate at Fort Amador. Source: US Army

Other US forces were landed via UH-60 Blackhawks on the golf course at Fort Amador, as P.D.F. forces that were still inside the barracks did not give up. Further exchanges of gunfire took place. With concerns over a pair of P.D.F. V-300s on the base, fire support from the AC-130 was requested. The AC-130 on this occasion was a failure. Three buildings were meant to be hit but it missed all three. By the evening, the base was still not completely in US hands and, in order to clear the buildings, a policy of spraying them liberally with heavy machine-gun fire was adopted. These were accompanied by firing from a pair of AT4 anti-tank missiles and a single shell from the 105 mm gun used in direct-fire mode. This did the trick and the few defenders at the base gave up, although this was not the end of the incident.

The AC-130 had failed to damage the V-300s on the base and, with them captured, the task force commander wanted to see them. As he was doing so, an unidentified US soldier decided they were a threat and fired an AT-4 missile at the vehicles, narrowly avoiding injury to the commander. The entire base was declared cleared and secure at 1800 hours on 20th December.

Building No.5 at Fort Amador after the fighting. Source: US Army

Task Force Wildcat / Task Force Bayonet (TFW / TFB) – Ancon Hill, Ancon DENI Station, Balboa DENI Station, and DNTT

Dominating the area of Panama City was Ancon Hill. Rising nearly 200 meters above the surrounding land, the hill provided views over the city and this was a location of strategic importance. On the reverse slope of the hill lay Quarry Heights, the headquarters for US Southern Command, although most of the hill and portions of Quarry Heights had already been ceded back to Panama in 1979 from US control.

Ancon Hill provided a clear view down into the city, including over La Comandancia and Gorgas Hospital. Although US Command was based there, there was only a token US military presence guarding it. The hill, surrounded as it was by P.D.F. facilities and very much undermanned, was clearly at risk of a preemptive P.D.F. attack. Tasked with securing the hill would be a small force known as Task Force Wildcat within Task Force Bayonet.

Objectives for Task Force Wildcat. Source: US Army

Consisting of A, B, and C Companies, 5th Battalion, 87th Infantry, 193rd Infantry Brigade, as well as A Company from 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry, and a military police unit, the targets were divided. B Company 5-87th would go for the DENI Station at Balboa in the south, which was along the route used by TFG to get to La Comandancia. C Company 5-87th would attack the DNTT building and the Ancon DENI Station to the north.

The attached Mechanised Company from 1-508th would set up roadblocks at key intersections to block any P.D.F. movements, whilst the military police would secure Gorgas hospital.

With operations starting before H hour, TFW likewise was in action, sending out its patrol. In a common story for the invasion, opposition gunfire was fierce but ineffective. The roadblocks were all in place within an hour. One US soldier was hit and killed and another two wounded at one of the roadblocks, but overall P.D.F. resistance had crumbled. Where a building was found to have a sniper, it was peppered vigorously with rifle and machine-gun fire from the 0.50 caliber machine guns carried on the M113. The gates of Ancon DENI station were blown apart with 90 mm recoilless rifle fire in a show of force and, by 0445 hours, Ancon DENI station was in US hands.

A similar story followed at Balboa DENI station and at the DNTT building, with the latter secure by 0800 hours 21st December and Balboa DENI Station following by 1240 hours.

Task Force RED (TFR) in Action

With Torrijos and Tocumen airfield in US hands thanks to TFR, there was also the large strategic airfield at Rio Hato to consider. Over 80 km from US forces based in the Canal Zone, this airfield served as the base for the 6th and 7th Companies of the P.D.F. Under the command of Colonel William Kernan, TFR was to conduct parachute-based assaults on Rio Hato Airfield. This site would be attacked by US forces predominantly from 2nd and 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, totaling 837 soldiers. They were to be supported by the overly macho sounding ‘Team Wolf Apache’ as part of TFR.

Rio Hato Airfield circa 1989. Source: Pinterest
Three Cadillac Gage V-150 armored cars at Rio Hato Airfield in 1989. Source: Antonio Castillo

The operation was timed so that 2nd and 3rd Battalions would attack Rio Hato as the 1st Battalion took Torrijos and Tocumen airports. Both attacks were supported by the 4th Psychological Operations Group, 1st Special Operations Wing, and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, including the use of UH-1C Apache helicopter gunships and F-117s (this would be the operational combat debut of the F-117).

P.D.F. Cadillac-Gage V-150 on exercise at Rio Hato in 1987. This particular vehicle belonged to the 6th Expeditionary Infantry Company of the P.D.F. Source: Jamurillo

Team Wolf Apache, operating Apache helicopters, made sure that the Rangers were not shot down by neutralizing the P.D.F.’s ZPU-4 air defense systems with their own 30 mm Area Weapons System (AWS). Attacking under the cover of darkness with infrared night sights, these helicopters were virtually invisible and the P.D.F. forces had nothing they could see to shoot at.

The assault on Rio Hato Airfield, Source: US Army
Close-up of Rio Hato airfield, showing it was bisected by the vital inter-American highway and also the locations of P.D.F. troops to the south. Source: US Army

Airborne fire support from the AH-6 successfully suppressed the air defense at Rio Hato for the TFR assault. A pair of F-117s (out of Tonapah Test Range, Nevada and refueled in flight) were to deliver a 2,000 lb. (1 US ton, 907 kg) GBU-27 laser-guided bomb each near to the garrison to create confusion and to disorientate the P.D.F. Unfortunately, they missed by several hundred meters due to poor targeting data and hit neither the garrison building nor landed close enough to cause confusion. Instead they succeeded in scaring a lot of local wildlife and waking the defenders. It would not have mattered anyway, as the initial strike for 0100 hours had already started early due to poor security and the Panamanian forces had already evacuated the building. More successful in subduing P.D.F. forces was the gunfire from the AC-130 circling overhead and the AH-1 and AH-64 helicopter gunships. Five minutes after these bombs had landed and strafing started, 2nd and 3rd Battalion, 75th Rangers arrived. Carried on 13 C-130 Hercules transport aircraft which had flown nonstop from the USA, they were dropped from just 150 meters, right into the sights of the P.D.F. troops, leading to a fierce gunfight which lasted for 5 hours. The results were that two Rangers were killed and four wounded, although this was not the result of the P.D.F. fire, which was fierce but largely ineffective. Instead, this was a tragic blue-on-blue incident when a helicopter gunship fired on their position in error. By the end of the battle, the airfield was in the Rangers’ hands and they moved quickly to cut the highway. The US Army claims to have killed some 34 Panamanians in the attack on Rio Hato, capturing 250 more, as well as numerous weapons. The US casualty toll is officially 4 dead, 18 wounded, and 26 injured in the jump. (Of note is that the 150 m parachute jump caused 5.2% friendly casualties according to US figures)

US Army Rangers with a modified M151A2 jeep fitted with roll bars and a pair of M60 machine guns. Source: Rottman via DoD.
Another V-150 of the 6th Mechanised a parade. The raised superstructure is the fitting for the command and control version. A single 0.50” caliber heavy machine gun is mounted on top. Source: todo por la patria
Task Force Red and Black areas of operation. Source: US Army

Task Force Black (TFB) in Action

Charged with reconnaissance and surveillance missions at Tinajitas, Fort Cimarron, and Cerro Azul (TV-2), TFB was under the command of Colonel Jake Jacobelly. Troops came from 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces and were supported by 4th Psychological Operations Group, 1st Special Operations Wing, and 617th Special Operations Aviation Detachment along with aircraft from 1-228th Aviation.

Cerro Azul was the home for the main television station – a key strategic target. Source: US Army

Fort Cimarron and Pacora River Bridge (TFB)

The Pacora River Bridge was a key strategic location on the road to Panama City. It was vital that the US seized this bridge in order to cut and control the highway, as this would prevent the Panamanian V-300s from P.D.F. Battalion 2000 from heading along the highway from their base at Fort Cimarron.

This task fell to Task Force Black (TFB) to support TFP. TFB’s troops came from A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), along with 24 Green Berets, with fire support provided by an AC-130 gunship from 7th Special Operations Wing. The surveillance TFB had been conducting on Fort Cimarron revealed that at least 10 P.D.F. vehicles left Fort Cimarron in response to the US invasion and this convoy would be intercepted at the Pacora Bridge.

Aerial view of the Pacora River Bridge. Source: US Army
Seen before the invasion, this V-150 Command version on parade is sporting an unusual paint scheme which, with the headlamps, forms a face. The ‘horns’ on the front appear to have been fitted for the purposes of the parade only. Source: Armed Forces of Panama

This operation flirted with disaster right from the outset when the troops being delivered by Blackhawk managed to get lost and flew right over the very convoy they were going to ambush. No chance of surprise remained after that and only by good fortune were the P.D.F. forces not awake enough to shoot down these rather fat, juicy, and easy targets right above them.

Having dodged an ignominious death, at 0045 hours, the Blackhawks, miraculously unmolested, deposited the 24 Green Berets troops on the western approaches to the bridge, on a steep slope, making movement more difficult but providing a dominant fire position over the bridge approaches. By the time the American special forces got to the bridge, the P.D.F. vehicles were there too and lighted up the American forces with their headlamps.

A classic ambush layout for the US forces at Pacora Bridge. Source: US Army
Two trucks belonging to Battalion 2000 of the P.D.F. stopped and shot up in the region of Pacora Bridge. An American Green Beret poses next to them. Source: Julio Diffilipo

The first two vehicles in the convoy were quickly stopped with well-aimed fire from AT-4 anti-tank missiles and then a hazardously close-air-support mission delivered from an AC-130 Spectre gunship. The AC-130 also provided infra-red illumination of the convoy so that the special forces with night vision equipment had a view of the enemy. The P.D.F. forces broke and retreated or fled. This allowed the US forces at the bridge, who had snatched a victory from a potentially embarrassing defeat, to meet up at around 0600 hours the next day with the M551s from 82nd Airborne, creating a solid link to the airport and cementing US control.

Three Cadillac-Gage armored cars were abandoned in the region of Pacora Bridge. A V-300 Mk.II with the Cockerill CM-90 turret sits on the left. A V-150 Command version is further away from the camera and a standard V-150 sits on the right. Some sources state these vehicles were taken out after crossing the river and others than they were returning from the bridge when they were abandoned. Source: Armed Forces of Panama on Facebook

A count of the losses from this critical action left 4 of the P.D.F. 2 ½ ton trucks, a pickup truck, and at least 3 armored cars behind, along with 4 P.D.F. dead.

Cerro Azul television station. Source: US Army

Task Force Green (TFG) in Action
Carcel Modelo Prison (TFG)

H Hour was set for 0100 hours on 20th December, but minutes before the official start of the invasion, a special forces mission codenamed ‘Acid Gambit’ was initiated at Carcel Modelo prison. Located near La Comandancia, the prison was housing an American citizen called Kurt Muse. Muse was reportedly a CIA operative and, whether he was or not, he was detained due to his activities running a covert anti-Noriega radio station in May 1989.

Carcel Modelo Prison.
Source: US Army

Elements from TFG supported 23 troops from the Army’s Delta Force, who successfully landed on the roof and entered the prison to free Muse. There, they loaded him onto an AH-6 ‘Little Bird’. The aircraft usually carried a crew of two but was now ferrying four members of Delta Force, the pilot, and Muse, overloading it. This otherwise successful raid could have ended in disaster, as the slow and low flying helicopter he was on was hit by gunfire and shot down, creating additional problems for the whole operation. Fortunately for the planners, Muse and the pilot of the AH-6 survived and were rescued by troops from the 5th Infantry Division with an M113 APC. All four of the Delta Force on the AN-6 were wounded during this action.

This AH-6 was shot down after the rescue of Kurt Muse. Note the American M113 APC of the 5th Infantry Division on the right of the picture. Source:

Task Force Semper Fidelis in Action

The task of TFSF was the security of the Bridge of the Americas (a 1.65 km long road link over the canal), Arraijan Tank Farm (a major fuel depot), US Naval Air Station Panama, and Howard Air Force Base, as well as to control movement along the Inter-American Highway from the west. As a result, they ended up with responsibility for the security of around 15 km2 of Panama City.

TFSF had probably the most complex job in the whole operation, covering both a large area but also known hostile enemy forces and a variety of high-value sites to seize and protect.

Howard Air Force Base, for example, was the hub of helicopter operations but was seriously vulnerable to possible mortar fire and, with hills overlooking it, to sniper fire. The Arraijan Tank Farm was a major fuel depot and the loss of this would have been an unpleasant visual site for the evening news, with large black clouds from burning fuel a potential backdrop to an operation.

Add to this the problems the loss of a large fuel depot would pose for both ground and air operations and that it was occupied by hostile P.D.F. forces and this was a substantial problem. Other P.D.F. forces were dotted around the TFSF area of operations with various roadblocks as well, including one outside Howard Air Force Base, at the Department of Traffic and Transportation (D.N.T.T.) station. Unarmored forces mounted in HMMWVs or trucks could not drive on the roads or through urban areas with risk of being shot at, so the LAVs of 2nd LAI would lead all of those operations, relying on their armor to protect from small arms fire and using their firepower to clear up any opposing forces in the way. TFG also benefited from the use of a number of M113 armored personnel carriers, meaning that they could at least move troops protected from small arms fire.

Panama City at the time of the invasion, December 1989. Source: US Army.

With H hour set for 0100 hours on 20th December, TFSF assets were in place and ready at Rodman Naval Station. Shortly before H hour, a warning was received of Panamanian V300 armored cars in the city. Concerned that these might move on their assigned targets, blocking forces were sent out. Within 10 minutes, 13 LAV-25s belonging to 1st and 3d Platoons, along with 17 Marines and a single unarmored HMMWV belonging to a US Army Psyops team were heading for Ajjaijan Tank Farm.

As the column moved towards DNTT Station 2, their first target, they started to receive incoming small arms fire. The lead element of the column (tasked with this target), using 3 LAV-25s, broke off, plowed through the gates in their LAV-25, and opened fire on any points of enemy resistance, although the 25 mm cannons were not used for fear of unnecessary casualties. This restraint continued as the Marines began clearing the buildings one at a time until a Marine was shot multiple times and killed. With that, such restraint was dropped and room clearance was done via fragmentation grenade and automatic fire. This was the only Marine killed in the whole of the invasion and one other was wounded at the DNTT Station. One member of the DNTT was killed, 3 more wounded, and 3 taken into custody. The whole operation took less than 10 minutes and the station was secured. The 3 LAV-25s then left the station to catch back up with the rest of the column moving on to Arraijan.

The P.D.F. had set a large roadblock on the highway (Thatcher Highway) to the farm, consisting of a pair of fuel tracks guarded by 10-20 P.D.F. troops. Not wishing to assault the location or drive into an ambush, the task force leaders authorized the trucks destroyed by 25 mm cannon fire. With this show of force and no chance of an ambush, the P.D.F. forces withdrew and the column moved on to Arraijan to secure it.

TFSF operations had not been affected by delays like the operations at Torrijos/Tocumen, and the four Marine companies, supported by infantry, struck their objectives right on time, rolling right through what harassing fire they encountered. In a very short time, all of TFSF objectives were secured, roadblocks set up as required, and the rifle companies were scouring the hills overlooking the area for any P.D.F. snipers.

LAV-25 of the USMC at a roadblock on the highway.
Source: Cole

With all of TFSF’s objectives for H hour complete, they were then assigned additional tasks in the afternoon. One of these was to take the P.D.F. headquarters (HQ for P.D.F. 10th Military Zone) building at La Chorrera. The task was allocated to the Marines attached to the Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) platoon and troops from D Company. The operation was underway by 1530 hours. Once more, a P.D.F. roadblock in the form of buses was blocking the Inter-American Highway at 1545 hours.

Rather than stop, the column simply plowed straight through it, with the LAV-25s firing as a show of force. Faced with an armored force they could not stop and which was not stopping either, the P.D.F. option was to stand, fight and lose or to leave. They chose the latter option and the column closed in on the La Chorrera HQ building. Reconnaissance showed that the building was more substantial than first thought and that there was a potential for a bloody engagement between the Marines and the defenders in an area surrounded by civilian housing.

There followed a series of back and forth orders relating to aerial fire missions, which took over an hour until, finally, a mission was ordered. Using a pair of A-7 Corsairs to strafe the target with 20 mm cannon fire and guided by an OA-37 Dragonfly, the mission was a success. No civilian homes were hit and the convoy entered the compound. Little resistance was encountered other than sniping from the few defenders who had stayed and this was dealt with robustly via the 25 mm cannon on the LAVs. Having cleared the compound and seized the weapons, the building was on fire and the Marines pulled out to return to Arraijan.

US Marines during the attack at P.D.F. HQ in La Chorrera.
Source: US Army
USMC LAV-25 of D Company outside the ruined and smoldering P.D.F. headquarters building at La Chorrera.
Source: US Army

Task Force White in Action (TFW) – Paitilla Airfield, Pote Porras

TFW was a special operations mission from the US Navy SEALS, consisting of 5 platoons along with 3 patrol boats, 4 river patrol craft, and 2 light patrol boats. This task force was divided into 4 task units; Charlie (TUC), Foxtrot (TUF), Whiskey (TUW), and Papa (TUP).

TUC was to ensure the safety of the entrance to the Panama Canal from the Atlantic side, whilst TUF did the same for the Pacific side. TUW was tasked with sinking the Pote Porras and TUP was to attack and occupy Paitilla airfield.

Task Unit Papa (TUP) – Paitilla Airfield

Half an hour prior to H Hour (0100 hours), 48 SEALs (3 x 16 man teams) from SEAL Team 4 landed south of the Paitilla airfield with orders to destroy Noriega’s aircraft to prevent him from escaping.

Noriega used a C-21A Learjet. With a pair of turbofan engines, the jet could carry 8 passengers in comfort with a range of over 5,000 km – certainly enough to escape to Havana (1,574 km), Caracas (1,370 km), or pretty much anywhere from northern Mexico to the northern half of South America as far as Rio de Janeiro (5,286 km). With that much ground to choose from, if he escaped, he would be hard to find.

The initial phase of the SEAL team operation went off without a hitch, with infiltration carried out on the southern side of the airstrip. This continued right up until about 5 minutes past H Hour when the simultaneous US invasion strikes across the country alerted the Panamanians to what was going on. Three V-300 armored cars were reported to be approaching the airfield (they were to actually drive past the airport and take no part) and a group of SEALs moved to intercept them at the hangers on the northwestern side of the airstrip, alerting them to their presence and resulting in a firefight. In this gun battle, the nine SEALs at the hangers were caught in the open and fired upon. Many of them were hit and wounded.

The rest of the SEALs who were there came to their assistance, continuing a fierce gunfight in which two SEALs were killed and 4 more wounded. In total, the airport operation left 4 SEALs dead and at least 8 wounded. Even so, the mission had been accomplished in a little over 7 minutes. The personal jet of Manuel Noriega was notably taken out during this action by means of an AT-4 anti-tank missile and the runway was blocked with another aircraft. In the morning of the 20th, they were relieved by the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 75th Rangers. Three P.D.F. troops had been killed and another 7 wounded. By 0330 hours, Paitilla airfield was considered to be secure.

Manuel Noriega’s private jet (a C-21A Learjet) was taken out by means of an AT-4 anti-tank missile, 20th December 1989. Source: Rottman via Major B. Kilgraff

Sinking the Pote Porras

With one SEAL team off to the airport to cripple Noriega’s aircraft and prevent his escape, another was dispatched to ensure he would not try to escape by sea. Known as the ‘Pote Porras‘ (recorded in the US military accounts mistakenly as the ‘Presidente Porras’, which was actually a ferry boat), the vessel was a Customs patrol craft and the largest vessel in the Panamanian Navy (registration P-202). This ship was to be mined with C4-filled haversacks by 4 SEALs from SEAL Team 2 in order to blow it up whilst it was berthed at Pier 18 in Balboa Harbor. During this operation, they were to get to the ship by swimming underwater using rebreather apparatus. However, they were spotted by Panamanian guards who shot at them and dropped grenades into the water. Other than being detected by the guards, however, the operation was a complete success and the boat was blown up.

Patrol craft P-202 Pote Porras seen in Rodman Naval Station in 1986. It was mined and sunk by SEALs.
Source: US National Archives

Second Act

The attack on the 20th had, in the main, been successful. Mistakes are inevitable in a large operation and forgivable, although little things, like potentially trapping your landing force in a bog for the enemy to shoot at, are less so. American forces had been successful despite those mistakes and also despite the inability to keep the operation secret. They achieved surprise perhaps not in the exact timing, but certainly in the scale of the attack striking everywhere at once and totally overwhelming the resistance.

The P.D.F. resistance had often been fierce and sporadic, but with daylight on the 20th and the invasion appearing a fait-accompli, the Panamanians did not give up. Some P.D.F. and irregular forces had managed to disappear into civilian areas or the jungles. On the evening of the 20th, P.D.F. soldiers were reported as going into the Marriott Hotel looking for US civilians.

Marriott Hotel airport catering truck commandeered by US forces as a somewhat conspicuous personnel carrier. Another vehicle – a white civilian van, was also repurposed for use as an ambulance by US forces.
Source: Pinterest

Fearing that some Noriega loyalists might seek retribution either by killing US civilians or by taking them hostage, US forces were dispatched to secure this location as well. A reinforced company of paratroopers was quickly sent and on route. In this somewhat last-minute operation along a relatively short route to the hotel, which was only about 3 km south of Panama Viejo, there was continual fire exchange between P.D.F. and Dignity Battalion forces in the area and the passing US troops. Sniper fire against American forces wounded two men and, in exchange, around a dozen Panamanian troops were killed. The US forces reached the hotel around 2130 hours that night and held it secure overnight, as there was no means by which to evacuate the guests staying there. Some hostages had been taken from the hotel prior to their arrival, although they were all released later. The remaining guests were evacuated on the 21st. In another hostage incident, a team from the Smithsonian Institute was abducted by a group of P.D.F. troops, only to be abandoned on the 21st in a remote area.

In the heightened tensions of those two days, two American civilians were killed. One was shot by P.D.F. forces shortly after H hour at a P.D.F. roadblock he tried to flee from, and US forces killed the other, who had tried to run through a US roadblock at around the same time.

Task Force Hawk (TFH) in Action – Cuartels

TFH helicopters of the 7th Infantry Division and 617th Aviation Company had one of the least known parts of the Panamanian invasion. It was headed by Major Gilberto Perez, commanding A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), supported by 2nd Brigade, 7th Infantry Division (Light). The plan was for the insertion of special forces to the airfields at the towns of Santiago, Chitre, and Las Tables to make contact with the small garrisons (known as ‘cuartels’) in those towns. An AC-130 gunship was on hand to provide a show of force should there be any hesitation. Having surrendered and put down their arms, the cuartels and towns would be occupied by the infantry to assure law and order. This was not one of the initial operational phases of the plan to start at H hour on 20th December. Instead, this was a follow-up as part of the pacification and normalization of the interior of Panama. The task started at 1400 hours, on 23rd December, at Santiago. With that success, next was Chitre at 0630 hours, 24th December, followed by Las Tables at 0900, 25th December. Even though this was not the most dramatic or action-filled mission of the Panamanian invasion, it was perhaps one of the most important, showing that US forces could be magnanimous in victory and were only occupying as long as they needed to.


Noriega was finally captured 14 days after the mission, after taking refuge in the Vatican City’s embassy for 10 days. After that, the somewhat ironically named ‘Operation Promote Liberty’ began by the occupying force which had just invaded the country.

During this time, there were no active combat operations undertaken, but the LAVs of D and then C Company 2nd LAI assisted Panamanian security forces in the quelling of some elements of local drug traffickers.

US Marine Corps LAV-25 belonging to D Company, 2nd Battalion in Arrijan, 20th December.
Source: Rottman via DoD.

The LAVs later served a useful ‘hearts and minds’ approach, whereby they could be used to engage with local children, and then their families who would go and see these vehicles parked in prominent public places. The local populace grew to know these vehicles as the ‘tanquita’ (English: little tank).

Numerous other patrols by various US forces were conducted, often at the behest of local Panamanians or following reports of lingering Panamanian forces. These were aimed either to recover arms or to pick up the PDF soldiers. They were successful although there were isolated incidents of people shooting at US forces over the next few days.

Four AH-6 helicopters had been lost in total, with two shot down by gunfire around La Comandancia in the opening hours of the operations and a third shot down at Colon later in the day (both crewmen were killed). The fourth was lost 10 days after the invasion, on 30th December, when a parachute was blown into the rotor blades whilst it was hovering at Tocumen Airport.

In total, some 26 American troops died during the operation, with a further 322 (another US Army document gives a figure of 325) wounded. Civilian deaths are hard to count, but the US Army estimated around 200 died between the cross-fire and acts of disorder which took place in the collapse of law and order in places like Colon. Of the approximately 15,000 troops in the Panamanian military, US Army figures give the number of Panamanian dead as 314, with 124 wounded and over 5,000 taken prisoner. The one notable exception to this was, of course, Noriega himself. Huge efforts had been made to take out every possible escape route for him from the country. Yet, on the 20th, other than perhaps still being with that sex worker held up somewhere, the US had no idea where he was.

They had, in fact, narrowly avoided capturing him when the car he was in went past a US roadblock on the 20th. His capture, or rather the lack of it, was a serious embarrassment to the whole operation. Where was Noriega?

Where’s Noriega?

Lacking a distinctive striped scarf to make him stand out like a Where’s Wally cartoon book, finding Noriega was like trying to find a piece of hay in multiple stacks of needles. He knew the country backwards and had numerous loyalists and opportunities to create hideouts for bolt holes either in the city, the jungle, or simply to be smuggled out of the country. Operation Just Cause could not claim success, and Panama could not move towards a post-Noriega era whilst he still remained on the run.

M551 at a roadblock outside the Vatican Embassy.
Source: Bob Pearson/ AFP
M551 outside the Vatican Embassy, providing a good view of the unusual ‘box’ added to the rear of the turret to protect the crew.
Source: US Army

Fearing he may take refuge in the embassy of an ‘awkward’ nation, like Nicaragua, Cuba, or Libya, where US forces could not recover him, those areas were tightly cordoned off by US forces. A massive manhunt was underway, so it was perhaps surprising that the diplomatic envoy (Papal Nuncio) of Pope John Paul II acting for the Vatican City, Monsignor Laboa, gave Noriega refuge in their embassy on Christmas Day 1989. For a man used to a bawdy lifestyle free with guns, violence, drugs, and prostitution, a stay at the embassy of the Vatican might have been a little disappointing for Noriega. It also underscores how desperate he was to not be captured and how little support he really had in the country. On the plus side, it also likely meant a more rapid end to military actions and troops on the streets.

M113 armored personnel carrier behind concertina wire at a roadblock outside the Vatican Embassy.

He Fought the Law – the Law Won

As soon as General Thurman learned of the situation with Noriega and where he was hiding, there was obviously relief of ‘where’s Wally’, but also the question appeared of ‘now what?’. The ‘now what’ was to seal off the embassy so that no one could go in or out and then to solve the problem diplomatically. With crowds chanting outside against him, and in possibly one of the most unusual military moves ever, it was decided to force him out with Rock and Roll. Very loud rock and roll was blasted through speakers courtesy of broadcasting US Military Radio for Central America (Southern Command Network), with song selections coming inventively from many of the service personnel in the area.

US Army HMMWV and an M113. Note the loudspeaker fitted to the roof of the HMMWV.
Source: Pinterest

Perhaps the first time most of the Papal Nuncio had heard the lyrical compositions of Guns ‘n’ Roses, Jethro Tull, The Clash, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Bon Jovi, The Doors, and AC/DC, they likely would not have enjoyed the deafening volumes at which it was blasted at the embassy. No one inside would be able to talk or sleep for this appalling racket blasted outside.

After two days of this din, operations were handed off to the 4th Psychological Operations Group but shortly thereafter, after the absurdity of it all, the music stopped. Noriega had nowhere to go and the Vatican, embarrassed as well by the whole affair, wanted the situation over. On 3rd January, Noriega walked out to the gate with 3 priests, where he surrendered to US forces.

Noriega on 3rd January 1990, after his arrest. He is taken onto a US aircraft for travel back to the United States for trial.
Source: US Air Force

Noriega was later put on trial in the US and sentenced to 30 years. Incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, he enjoyed accommodation far better than the other inmates thanks to his official status as a Prisoner of War, until his sentence expired in 2007. He stayed in US custody thanks to extradition requests until 2010 when he was sent to France for trial, where his status was reduced to that of a common inmate, and received a 7-year sentence for money laundering. He was later extradited back to Panama in 2011 and sent to El Renacer Prison. He died in custody on 29th May 2017.

Follow-up on the Invasion

The post-invasion analysis is complicated. The arguments over the legal (or lack of) justification for the invasion and the incredible complexity of trying to comprehend so many operations across a whole country at the same time are not helping factors. Just 8 months after the conclusion of Operation Just Cause came the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and military attention very much shifted to a much bigger and more complex conflict on the other side of the planet.

Several lessons were, however, starkly clear. Medevac by helicopter was crucial, with 25 US troops medevaced during the invasion operations on 20th December alone. In total, 470 people were medevaced by aircraft from 1-228 Aviation alone (although not all were US personnel).

Air support was obviously a crucial element in the win but had not been without incident. Too much confusion, too many friendly fire incidents, and near misses, were the result of inadequate training. However, aerial combat assets, particularly those for ground support*, were absolutely invaluable, whether helicopter gunships or the AC-130 gunship and despite their age as aircraft, the UH-1 and AH-1 performed well. Even such a relatively small invasion across just a couple of days involved 948 separate aerial combat missions totaling 3,741 flying hours. These missions were on the whole successful, more than in Grenada, because they happened in the dark thanks to advances in night vision technology. In fact, 742 of those 948 missions (78%) were carried out using night vision goggles. With combat and non-combat air missions counted together, there were a total of 1,117 air missions and 5,762 flying hours logged. Airpower, particularly the ability to move forces rapidly by helicopter, simply overwhelmed the Panamanians.

[* Ammunition wise, aircraft alone fired 1 TOW missile, 7 Hellfires, 29 CRV-7 Multi-Purpose Sub-Munitions (cluster bombs), 90 PD6, 3,300 rounds of 30 mm ammunition, 180 2.75” rockets (flare and HE types), 3,866 rounds of 20 mm ammunition, and 9,290 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition.]

On the ground, the ancient M113 rolled through the events very well, often exceeding expectations. The tracked box was a versatile machine capable of moving men or the wounded in and out of hot areas very ably. The roof-mounted .50 caliber heavy machine gun, whilst not as capable as the 20 mm turret-mounted weapon on the M2 Bradley (replacing the M113 as the Army’s armored personnel carrier), was found to be incredibly useful, as it could elevate to strike very high targets in buildings which the otherwise excellent cannon in the Bradley could not. It was recorded, however, that more perhaps out of luck than anything else, an RPG did not take out one of the M113 columns in the advance on La Comandancia. Had it done so, the entire advance could have faltered and the additional protection offered by the M2 Bradley over the M113 would have been seen as being of substantial value.

One other note on the use of the M113 was the lack of capability as a mechanized unit for clearing obstructions. Cars could be driven over, but the dump trucks used by the P.D.F. to block routes to La Comandancia had crippled one M113 which rammed them and they had no good way of clearing them. A Combat Engineering Vehicle (CEV), particularly one with a large caliber (165 mm) gun for delivering a breaching charge, was strongly recommended. This could have both cleared the roadblock and also smashed through the compound walls and avoided the US troops having to get so close under the enemy guns.

The new HMMWV light trucks, replacing the M151 Jeep, were likewise well received and the Marine Corps LAVs likewise proved themselves to be capable and robust machines.

USMC LAV-25 at a roadblock in Panama City 1st January 1990.
Source: Weijon Din

“the Light Armored Vehicle’s (LAV’s) firepower, mobility, and armor coupled with the Fleet Antiterrorist Security Team’s highly trained Close Quarters Combat Team (CQBT) provided a versatile and potent force, particularly for offensive operations and as a quick reaction force. The Loudspeaker teams (psychological operations) provided the means to offer an opportunity and in some cases persuade the enemy to surrender without a fight.”
MCLLS# 12559-16914 quoted in DeForest, 2001

A Marine Corps LAV-25 providing fire support.
Source Pinterest

The story of the M551 is more complex. They had been invaluable in delivering fire support against structures when their 152 mm ammunition delivered a nice and robust blast. There had, after all, been zero need for an armor-defeating action, so high explosive was much more useful. The M551 had been selected as most bridges in the country were not able to take the weight of heavier tanks, like the M60. The tank was considered by many as being basically obsolete by this point at the end of the Cold War and this was, after all, the first operational combat airdrop of one (which did not go well). The reality, however, was that any tank is better than no tank and, with enough armor to render any small arms useless, it was a substantial presence in the invasion. It had all the capability to take on any of the possible armor it could meet and the 152 mm was substantially more useful as a lobber of high explosive than it probably ever was going to be as a missile-firing system.

M551 at a roadblock in Panama City, 1st January 1990.
Source: Weijon Din

Financially, the cost of the invasion ran to US$163.6 m, with the bulk (US$155 million) of costs allocated to the Army, with substantially smaller costs (US$5.7 million and US$2.9 million) for the Air Force and Navy, respectively. The costs of US Marine Corps operations fall into the expenditure of the Navy and not the Army. Overall, this was a cheap operation in military terms and casualties had been light. There had also been a good display on the whole of restraint by US forces and this is shown in the relatively low civilian casualty figures, despite the density of population in the areas in which much of the operations took place. That is not to say that there were no incidents of excess by US forces because there were. US Army records show that 19 US personnel were court-martialed for offenses committed during Operation Just Cause and 17 of them convicted:

Two were from 82nd Airborne for the murder of a civilian and assault on another soldier (not guilty); 2 from 5th Infantry Division for Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and Assault x 2 (guilty); 2 from US Army South for theft (larceny) and AWOL/drunk (guilty), 76 from 7th Infantry Division for disobeying orders, the accidental shooting of another soldier, killing a civilian, losing a weapon x 3, conspiracy to smuggle x 4, negligent discharge and injury of a civilian x 2, and theft (all guilty).

M113 seen during Operation Just Cause. Note the coils of razor wire and that the soldier is posing with children by the vehicle. Despite the often fierce resistance of some units, many Panamanians welcomed the stability brought by US troops.
Source: Ken Sabin

The USA finally transferred control of the canal to Panama, as had been originally agreed, on 31st December 1999.
7:38 minute CSPAN Video the invasion of Panama including Pentagon footage inside Panama City after the invasion.

A LAV-25 of the USMC during the invasion of Panama.
An M551A1 Sheridan from the 82nd Airborne Division.


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DeForest, R. (2001). Light armored vehicles in operations other than war. Masters’ Thesis. US Marine Corps Command and Staff College.
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GAO Report NSAID-01-174FS. (April, 1991). Panama: Issues Relating to the U.S. Invasion. US Government Accounting Office, USA.
GAO Report NSAID-90-279FS. (September 1990). Panama: Cost of the US Invasion of Panama. Government Accounting Office, USA.
Hammond, K., & Sherman F. (1990). Sheridans in Panama. Armor Magazine March April 1990
Kuehn, J. TR?s Plan to Invade Columbia. US Naval Institute
Lathrop, R., McDonald, J. (2002). Cadillac Gage V-100 Commando 1960-1971. New Vanguard, Osprey Publishing, UK
Luxner, L. (1991). Shipping registry of Panama shrank in ‘90, but revenue grew.
Margolis, D. (1994). The invasion of Panama: an analysis of Operation Just Cause under international law. Towson State Journal of International Affairs. Vol. XXX. No.1.
Philips, R. on behalf of the United States Army. (1990). The incursion into Panama. CMH Publication 70-85-1, USA Army, USA
Quigley, J. The Legality of the United States Invasion of Panama.
Rottman, G. (1991). Panama 1989-90. Osprey Elite Series No.37. Osprey Publishing, UK
SIPRI Trade Register – Arms Imports to Panama 1950-1995.
Smith, D. (1992). Army Aviation in Operation Just Cause. US Army War College.
Soldiers in Panama: Stories of Operation Just Cause. US Army
Special Operations
United Nations Digital Library: USSCR 330:
United States Department of State Archive: Panama Canal Treaty of 1977:
US Navy SEAL Museum
Yates, L. (2014). The US military intervention in Panama: Operation Just Cause. Center of Military history, US Army, Washington DC, USA

WW2 Italian Prototypes

CV.3/33 Pre-Series

Italy Kingdom Of Italy (1932-1933)
Light tank – 4 built

Following the successful tests of the Ansaldo Prototype Light tank in 1930 and 1931, the new suspension system, replacing the original rigid-wheel type, had shown itself to be robust and the tank had fulfilled the needs for armor and mobility. The Regio Esercito (Italian Army) would be getting these new light tanks to replace the CV.29’s which had only ever been a temporary solution to the lack of a fast tank. First, though, a small number of this tank had to be made for acceptance trials. These new tanks would involve small changes from the 1931 Light Tank Prototype and, by the end of 1933, it was accepted into production as the Carro Armato Veloce Ansaldo (Ansaldo Fast Tank) of 3 tonnes, or ‘CV.3’ for short. It is also often referred to as the CV.33, not because it weighs 33 tonnes, but for the year of adoption. For ease of understanding the complex evolution of this vehicle which underwent numerous changes through its life, it is also sometimes classified as being the ‘CV.3/33’ (Carro Veloce 3 tonne, 1933 Model) as a convenient way of distinguishing it from later models.

All four of the pre-series together outside the factory where they were built. Only the vehicle second from camera had had its armament fitted when this photo was taken. Source: Ceva and Curami

Trials and Development

With the lessons learned from the trials conducted over 1929-1931, Giuseppe Rossini, the engineering brains at Ansaldo, made a series of modifications to improve on the 1931 design with the four pre-series production vehicles ordered in 1932.

Ansaldo Light Tank Prototype (left) compared to the Pre-Series CV.3/33 vehicle (right) showing the changes to the front of the tank. Source: Ceva and Curami, and Pignato respectively

Layout Changes

The general shape and layout were retained, but changes were significant. First and foremost, the large, curved shield on the front and the large water-cooled Fiat Model 1914 6.5 mm machine gun were both removed. Instead, it had been replaced with the Fiat 6.5 mm Model 1914 aircraft (tipo aviazione) machine gun in a new mount. This was an air-cooled machine gun, meaning that the mounting for it was much smaller, as it did not have to accommodate the large water jacket on the earlier machine gun. It was also lighter but, like the other, earlier prototype vehicles, also had a separate tripod which was carried on the back deck of the tank for mounting the machine gun outside of the tank. This seems to be a simple hangover from the Carden-Loyd Mark VI which also carried a separate tripod for the same reason. This machine gun was now mounted into a new limited-traverse mounting on the front left. The machine gun had a wide field of fire as it was able to move 20 degrees in each direction horizontally and could be elevated between -12 and +18 degrees. There was space inside the tank for 3,800 rounds of ammunition for the machine gun.

The single-piece roof of the model 1931 was gone, replaced by a new roof with two large rectangular hatches cut into it. The all-welded upper bodywork from the 1931 model was retained, although the glacis now went all the way up the front of the casemate as far as the driver’s visor and was bolted down onto a frame, whereas previously this was made in two parts and was welded. The nose plate was also simplified. Rather than the heavily bolted plate and a reinforcing piece on the front of the 1931 model, this 1932 design was a cleaner plate bolted across the top edge to the frame of the tank. The towing ring was retained as a feature too but was smaller, held with 4 bolts to the nose instead of 8 as in the 1930 and 1931 vehicles (and the tractor prototype). Armor all-round ranged from 8 mm up to 14 mm thick.

Headlamps were added, one on each side, fitted to the new metal mudguards. Gone were the flimsy metal mudguards trialed on the tractor. The mudguards were now sleek and neatly fitted flush to the glacis, covering the track all the way back under the front part of the casemate. There were no mudguards on the rear. One often overlooked change was the toolbox. The semi-triangular toolbox which was located behind the drive sprocket on the prototype vehicles and tractor was moved on the pre-series to behind the casemate in front of the exhaust.

Pre-series CV.3/33 without its armament fitted during trials in Lazio in 1933. Source: Tallillo and Guglielmi

The back of the hull was changed significantly too. The 1930 design had 2 ventilation grilles on each side and more on the flat roof of the engine bay. Both were vulnerable to mud being thrown up by the tracks, and this pre-series vehicle did away with them, apart from the vents over the radiator. Instead of side and roof grilles, the air intake was moved forwards to the side of the casemate in the form of a large, rectangular multi-slat grille mounted alongside the driver’s head on the right, and the commander/gunner’s head on the left. This feature raised the air intakes, consequently improving the fording height of the vehicle and reducing the likelihood of being clogged with mud as well as providing airflow through the casemate to provide ventilation for the crew. It would also have the unfortunate side-effect that it replaced the side hatches, restricting visibility for the crew. These large side vents were dropped immediately after these four vehicles as a result.

Ansaldo CV.3/33 Pre-Series production vehicle. The framework on the back is a tripod for the machine gun. Source: Falessi and Pafi

Mobility and Suspension

There was little changed between the suspension on this pre-series vehicle and that of the 1931 Prototype. The front-drive sprocket had moved from the multipiece type on the prototype to a single-piece sprocket on the pre-series, and the rear supporting bracket for the rear idler was changed too. Instead of being short with a square hole and solid support wheel underneath to keep the track in place, this pre-series vehicle had a longer supporting bracket with a rectangular hole along with a single solid roller and a rubber-tire road wheel.

New rear idler support bracket on the pre-series vehicle (left) to the 1931 Prototype suspension (right). Source: Composite image by Author taken from Falessi and Pafi

Power for the vehicle was supplied by the Fiat CV3-type 4 cylinder petrol engine, as was later adopted for the production vehicles. That 2.745 litre engine received various modifications to improve the power output over its production, but as it was fitted to the pre-series vehicle, it could produce 43 hp at 2,400 rpm. This enabled the tank, which only weighed 3.1 tonnes, to manage up to 42 km/h on a road and about 15 km/h off-road.


The 1932 ordered pre-series CV.3 vehicles were a critical step in the development of the CV.3, as they marked the conclusion of prototype trials and the final outlay of the engine bay, with the exception of the air vents which had to be moved following trials. The development process had gone fairly quickly for a tank, taking just 3 years from CV.29 to the construction of the pre-series CV.3/33. Trials in July 1933 had shown a few minor problems, such as the new headlamps being fouled or damaged by undergrowth, and the large vulnerable side vents in the casemate, but the design was successful and was formally adopted as Italy’s new light tank known as the Carro Armato Veloce Ansaldo. With the changes for the first production, the Series I CV.3 approved, an initial order for 240 examples was ordered.

Over the course of the next several years, this vehicle would serve as the workhorse of the Italian army serving as far afield as Russia and East Africa and forming the basis of many modifications and specialist vehicles. The four pre-series vehicles would go on to be used as driver training vehicles. None are believed to have survived.

One of the Pre-Series CV.3 vehicles being used circa 1942 for driver training as indicated by the markings on the front and side ‘SCUOLA GUIDA’ (Driving School). The armament has been removed and the vehicle is showing the positions of the related headlamps and toolbox as adopted for the Series I production vehicles. Source: Private collection
A pre-series CV.33 in red primer colors.
Illustration of the CV.3 preseries showing the peculiar under-track toolbox. Illustration by Adrielcz, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Pre-Series CV.3/33 Light Tank specifications

Dimensions 3.15 m long, 1.4 m wide, 1.287 m high
Total weight, battle ready 3.1 tonnes
Crew 2 (Commander/Machine Gunner, Driver)
Propulsion 2.745 litre 43 hp Fiat CV.3-005 4-cylinder petrol
Speed est. 40 km/h road, 14 km/h off-road
Armament Single Fiat Model 1914 air-cooled 6.5mm Machine Gun (tipo aviazione)
Armor 8-14 mm
Total production 1 built
For information about abbreviations check the Lexical Index

Pignato, N, Cappellano, F. (2002). Gli Autoveicoli da Combattimento Dell’Esercito Italiano V.2. Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito
Curami, L., Ceva, A. (1994). La Meccanizzazione dell’Esercito Italiano. Arte Della Stampa

WW1 British Prototypes

Atherton’s Mobile Fort

United KingdomBritish Empire (1916)
Heavy tank – design only

Tanks, the new wonder weapons of mechanical inspiration, armored leviathans running on steel tracks to smash their way through German positions on the Western Front, were first used at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15th September 1916. Straight afterward, rumors of this new weapon started to circulate amongst the Central Powers and in the minds of the general public in Britain, France, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the first public airing of a photograph of a tank did not get published until 22nd November that year. Yet, although the idea of an armored mechanical war weapon was not new and had appeared in both serious and some far less serious versions, including science-fiction stories beforehand, this was not the first use and first publicity which had the tank or ‘landship’ seize the imagination of the home front. It is then perhaps ironic or just coincidentally timed that Percy William Atherton, a London-based engineer, submitted a completely independent design for a giant wheeled land machine clad in armor and fitted with turrets exactly one week prior to the action at Flers Courcelette.

The Man

Percy William Atherton is not a well-known name in tank design or military circles. Indeed, he is elusive in the historical record save for a patent filed in November 1900 for an improved type of rim for pneumatic tires.

At the time of filing an application for that patent, he was already engaged as an engineer by profession and provided an address on Tenison Street, York Road, London – an area of the Southbank just north of Waterloo Railway Station.

In 1901, still with the address at Tenison Street, he filed another patent, this time for gloves or mittens which allowed their finger and/or thumb to be exposed without taking them off. He was now providing his occupation as a consulting engineer.

Looking over the area to the South East, the 19th Century terraces of Howley Terrace and the neighboring Street, Tenison Street was utterly devastated during the Blitz, as seen in this 1949 photograph. The spire on the skyline is that of St. Johns at Waterloo. The area was demolished for the Festival of Britain 1951. Source:

In 1908, Atherton revealed that he was obviously doing reasonably well financially, as he was the owner of a 3 cylinder 12 hp Clyde motor car (Clyde Motor Company Ltd. Leicester) and managed to entangle himself in an argument in a contemporary periodical over opinions on the reliability of the aforementioned brand of vehicle. Other than this, all that can be deduced at this time is that sometime between 1908 and 1916, he took a contract to work in British India as an engineer for the Public Works Department (P.W.D.) and was living at Shorkot Road Junction, Punjab, India – about halfway between Faisalabad and Multan in modern-day Pakistan. When, in September 1916, he gave this occupation, he also provided a UK address in Gloucester Street, Warwick Square, Westminster, London, southeast of the modern-day Victoria Coach Station.

He was also now a member of the Institute of Municipal Engineers (IMunE.), an organization which eventually (1978) merged with the Institute of Civil Engineers (I.C.E.), showing that he had continued to progress in his skills as an engineer. With a war waging in Europe and with his home nation forces stalled against a seemingly impenetrable wall of German wire and machine guns, Atherton turned his engineering skills to consider a mechanical solution to the problem.

The Design

Regardless of whatever engineering skills, training, abilities, or experiences he had by 1916, Atherton designed what has to rank as one of the most ludicrous wheeled vehicles ever proposed for any purpose – let alone military ones.

It is important to see that, whilst the wheels in themselves are ridiculous in proportion to the vehicle they are carrying, they are also ridiculous in their own right as they were to be up to 300 feet (91.4 m) in diameter. This was no armored car – it was meant as more of a wheeled warship and only half as sensible as that sounds.

The overall premise resembled a narrow pram or pushchair with ridiculously large wheels. Instead of a baby carriage, however, Atherton proposed not much shy of a dreadnaught mounted within these wheels. He described this heavily armed body mounted in that manner with four or maybe more wheels where the body of the vehicle actually lay above the axis of rotation of the wheels.

The body itself was essentially rectangular with a rounded front and rear and topped with turrets. The motive power driving the vehicle was pictured as being fairly rudimentary, with a clearly drawn drive belt or chain running from the center point on each side of the body to the rear axle.

Side view of Atherton’s Self-Propelled Fort from British Patent GB125610 of 1916. Digitally cleaned by the author.
Plan view of Atherton’s Self-Propelled Fort from British Patent GB125610 of 1916. Digitally cleaned by the author.

Inside the hull, there were to be several floors (decks), with the primary magazine located in the center for protection and surrounded by drinking water tanks and hydraulic equipment. The drinking water served both to provide fresh water for the crew but also allowed the magazine to be flooded, just like on a warship, to prevent an explosion.


Atherton’s fort, in the tradition of the amateur inventor, was to be excessively well-armed, mounting no less than four turrets along with the heaviest possible guns – the sort normally fitted into fixed concrete mountings. These were to be complemented by an array of guns of other smaller calibers, and a slew of Maxim-type machine guns, as may be deemed necessary. He did not specify what size these guns were to be, but four turrets are clearly shown in the plan view with a pair of large guns each, for a total of 8. These guns would have been large, not only because of the scale at which they are drawn in relation to the massive vehicle but also because he carefully noted the use of hydraulic or other equipment to assist in the loading of the ammunition. Clearly, Atherton had some level of knowledge of loading large guns, presumably of a naval nature, but he also quite evidently had zero practical understanding of not only the issues of command and control over such a plethora of weapons but also the limitation of them.

He had made an obvious and conscious effort to avoid the turrets interfering with each other so that the gun turrets being rotated could not accidentally strike another turret, yet the central two turrets are close enough that they could, in theory, have clashed barrels if, for whatever reason, the leading central turret was rotated all the way to the rear. As shown in the side view by Atherton, although turrets 1 and 4 (front and rear, respectively) are positioned along the longitudinal axis of the hull, turrets 2 and 3 (the central pair) are offset to the left and right respectively. This is unlikely to be a mistake on such a simple drawing and is more likely to be an attempt to allow the guns to fire past each other to the front without causing interference. However, as each turret was more than half the width of the body, this was still not possible.

One final note on the turret size and position is that turrets 1 and 4 are clearly shorter than numbers 2 and 3, in what might be assumed was an attempt to allow the central turrets to fire over the top of them. However, the low position of the guns in all four turrets, as illustrated in the side elevation of the design, would preclude this and the purpose of the central turrets being taller is therefore unclear.

Atherton was vague on the turrets when he described that they may be arranged so as to deliver fire close to the machine. This presumably would require some turrets underneath for that purpose. He did mention, however, that a second battery of guns could be fitted at the ends and/or along the sides of the hull to provide fire at up to -45 degrees, although this would still leave a large dead zone directly underneath.

As well as all of the big guns and anti-infantry smaller guns, there was provision for anti-aircraft guns on the roof of the fort, although the author mentions no number or type. In perhaps the first hint of Atherton running out of ideas for new and fabulous weapons he could burden this already implausible machine with, he proposed that it could be used to discharge poisonous gases, although they would obviously have to be heavier than air in order to sink from the hull to the ground to affect the enemy troops below.


With an appreciation for its huge size and enormous weight, Atherton suggested its construction along similar lines to ships which weighed “thousands of tons” i.e. in a dockyard-type setting and built upon stocks – angled wooden poles. Parts for the vehicle and sections would then be moved into place using large rolling cranes, such as those of the Goliath-type. The crane would, however, have had to have been a monster in its own right, as the stocks would have to be tall enough to hold up the bottom of the hull so that the wheels could be put on i.e. they needed to be roughly as tall as the radius of the wheels. The hull, on top of this, meant more height and this Goliath-type crane Atherton was proposing would therefore have to straddle all of those parts in order to be able to lift and move items like guns, engines, and turrets into place.

It is perhaps for that reason that Atherton suggested the use of ‘pits’ alongside the stocks during construction to lower the overall height of the works being performed. Even so, this massive machine was still going to be a gargantuan operation to fabricate.

The Stothert and Pitt-made Goliath gantry crane was capable of a standard load of 250 tons (254 tonnes) and is seen here during testing at Shoeburyness in 1922 with a 300-ton (305 tonnes) test load of battleship guns. The small objects in front are people, as is the operator stood on top, following all of the appropriate health and safety rules of the era. This enormous crane cost GBP£14,000 in 1922 (around GBP £800,000 in 2020 values).
The true scale of the engineering involved in the crane suggested by Atherton is illustrated by the giant snatch block for the Goliath crane, as seen in 1922 at Shoeburyness. Source: Andrews and Burroughs


Although construction was to follow a battleship in terms of the use of the stocks and crane methods, the whole machine was, Atherton said, to be narrower than such a vessel, so as to allow it to be transported in floating docks if required. This could be forgone, however, if the wheels were made 300 feet (91.4 m) in diameter, as with wheels of this size, “the forts could cross for instance the English Channel with its maximum depth of 120 feet [36.6 m]”
This statement from Atherton has to be evaluated in itself, as it is not strictly correct. Topographical maps of the seafloor of the English Channel show that he would only be correct on this maximum depth in the region between around Beachy Head on the English South Coast and to the East up towards Dover. On the French side, a crossing from that point would have to land in France somewhere between around the mouth of the River Somme and Calais. Should Atherton’s enormous machine have tried to drive across the channel any further to the West in the English Channel, he would have floundered, as depths reach 120 meters or more in places, more than twice the wading capability of his concept.

Depth f of the English Channel shown by colour with red and yellow being the shallowest areas and blue to dark blue the deepest parts. Atherton’s design would have been limited to just the narrow section in the East of the channel. Source: Mellet, Hodgson, Plater et al. (2013)

Added to this depth calculation is that he was trying to make an allowance of sinkage into the seabed by the wheels of up to 30 feet (9.1 m). Assuming a wheel diameter of 300 feet (91.4 m) and this sinkage allowance of 30 feet (9.1 m), this means a maximum wading depth to the bottom of the hull as follows:

300’/2 – 30’ = 120 feet (36.6 m)

In order to assure safety and knowing the depth of the English Channel, this very much limited Atherton’s potential wading crossing to the area mentioned above and even then, the hull would, at times, be in the water.

Not only were the wheels to be up to 300 feet (91.4 m) in diameter, but each one was to be 30 feet (9.1 m) wide and the rearmost clearly also had a pronounced central circumferential rib, like the wheels on a tractor. With four wheels, this meant a surface contact area, when sunk to a depth of 10 feet (3.0 m), of 3,600 sq. ft. (334.5 m2). Working on a basis of soil being able to take a load of approximately 0.75 ton per sq. ft., Atherton calculated the four-wheeled fort could weigh up to 10,800 tons (10,973 tonnes), as each wheel could support a load of 2,700 tons (2,743 tonnes).

To reduce weight, Atherton proposed that rather than have the wheels be solid, they should be made in the form of giant cables made from “plough steel” tensioned between the centre and the rim to form spokes. Twice as many spokes would be fitted than were actually needed to support the weight of the machine in order to create a factor of safety should some be damaged by enemy gun fire or damage. Each spoke would be connected to the hub by a bolt and meet the rim at a large eye-bolt and the face of the wheel in contact with the ground would project past the bolts, holding these in place. This was effectively described as similar to that used in bicycle wheels and allowed for tensioning of each spoke as required. The actual rim itself would be made from multiple corrugated steel plates overlapping and bolted to each other and use a series of box girders to form a tread on the wheel.

Made in this way, these huge wheels provided an armored tread surface whilst being open and as light as possible in construction. Their size allowed for a ditch some 50 feet (15.24 m) wide and 50 feet (15.24 m) deep to be crossed with relative ease. This would be more than enough to simply drive over a huge barrier like a river or the Albert Canal, which at a modest 3.4 m deep and 24 m wide, would barely get the wheels wet.


Atherton was vague on the protection level he expected for this huge rolling target. The only comment on the armor in general was that it must be of “thickness that it cannot be penetrated by projectiles from such [large calibre] guns.”

When it came to overhead protection, Atherton was a little more descriptive. He proposed an armored roof with a layer of sand “a few feet in thickness” or made with sandbags. With the vehicle being as much as 400 feet (122 m) or so long and 50 feet (15 m) wide, a layer of sandbags even just 2 feet (0.6 m) thick would mean 40,000 cu.ft. (1,133 m3) – roughly 1,850 tonnes of sand.

Other Equipment

On top of a veritable plethora of guns and a small army to crew them, Atherton proposed some other essential features as well. First was a wireless telegraph – something which up to that point was definitely a novel idea in a military vehicle and one of the very very few worthy features of the design. To aid in signalling to friendly forces, the vehicle would also have a semaphore system and other manual signalling apparatus.

Due to the huge size of the fort, it was able to carry within, on top, or perhaps slung along its length, a series of secondary craft. These were to include small motor craft for use on water, motor vehicles, and even its own aircraft.

For the former, a section of the floor of the hull would open up to allow them to be lowered to the ground or water surface. For the latter, a hydraulically-actuated side panel could be used to deploy the aircraft, although details of this terrifying prospect for the pilot were omitted, as well as any idea for how they may get back on board.

As can be imagined, this vehicle served not only as a direct engine of war for bringing destructive firepower to bear on the enemy, or to cross enemy wire, trenches and vehicles under its mighty wheels, but also to be able to stop and deliver troops and equipment. The same type of lowering flap which could deliver vehicles to the ground could also open to allow a series of mechanical lifts operating down a heavily armored slide to discharge an undisclosed number of troops, animals, or stores.


The designer was clearly familiar in technical terms with the fundamentals of how a wheeled motor vehicle was driven, both by his own patent prior to this one discussing automotive matters, and his ownership of a motor car.

Separate engines were to be used within Atherton’s fort, with each unit driving one wheel at the back. Steering was to be carried out by means of hydraulic jacks which would push each wheel on its bearing to turn slightly in the desired direction. These hydraulic rams were to be provided with their own engine, each modified from the type used on board a large ship, but could be controlled by a hydraulic system, electricity, or steam.

The primary engines for Atherton’s fort were to be either of the steam-boiler type or internal combustion type, although he expressed the view that the internal-combustion type may be unsuitable due to the low torque it produced at low speeds.

Cooling was to be done by water with a plentiful supply for the machine when under steam crossing something like the English Channel. Excess coolant water would be jetted vertically onto the hull in a manner he described as serving “as a protection from plunging fire or bombs dropped by airships or aeroplanes” although how this was to work is unclear.

Coal for the engines (or liquid fuel in the event an internal combustion engine was to be used) would be stored in the lower decks of the hull, along with the gearing and machinery of the vehicle.


In actual use, the proposal for the fort seems to have been relatively simplistic, consisting of not much more than driving your protected bulk at the enemy, relying on its sheer mass and size to remove obstacles and to crush enemy positions – and that is about it as far as logic is concerned. Once static, the vehicle would almost be a kind of forward base from which troops and even aircraft could operate.

One particular mode of operation Atherthon proposed was to operate two such machines alongside each other, dragging a huge giant chain or series of grapples, with which wire obstacles could be dragged away and destroyed, similar to the Schuman super dreadnought.


Atherton, like so many of those who embarked on designing the enormous weapons of war, kept adding features often in order to overcome some serious shortcomings of the design. For example, the vehicle was so big it could not protect itself close by, so a second belt of guns was needed, and it was so high a complex series of lifts and winching was needed to be able to deliver troops.

The mass of Atherton’s fort is roughly the same as a British County-lass cruiser of WW2, but this fort was no agile warship at sea. Driving slowly through deep water, it would have been limited to channels which were not too deep or rutted for the wheels, with little or no ability to manoeuvre. Waddling slowly though something like the English Channel, it would have been a sitting duck for any enemy warship with a vaguely competent crew.

The fort would have fared no better on land either. Being well over 100 m high, the commander of the fort would have been able to see up to 36 km (22 miles) on flat terrain, but likewise he could also be seen from that far away. That is, assuming for a moment that the fort would move, not fall over, nor become hopelessly bog down, or just fall apart.

Given the nonsensical size of the wheels, which appear to have served just the single purpose of permitting a haphazard and improbable crossing of a particular stretch of water (The English Channel), Atherton had created the rest of the vehicle around that premise and, in doing so, managed to design a vehicle as unsteady as a one legged man after a hard night on the drink. Extremely high, with a huge mass on very light (proportionally) wheels, Atherton created a vehicle which would inevitably topple over sideways on the first side gradient it might encounter or even just on soft ground, where the wheels on one side sink slightly more. The centre of gravity of the vehicle is simply too high to be even vaguely practicable and, whilst he may indeed have been correct on the issue of sinkage, he utterly failed to grasp the toppling issue, the problems of propelling and even stopping such a gargantuan and heavy machine and on top of that – how on Earth it was meant to steer.

The machine from Atherton was likely submitted, like so many inventors before and subsequently, with the best of intentions, but it is hard to fathom whether he truly believed it would ever be built in any form. This was simply not what the British needed in WW1 – they already had no real problems with crossing the English Channel anyway, as they dominated the seas, so the primary purpose of the huge wheels was pointless. The idea of cramming hundreds or even a thousand men into one of these machines was also not going to find favour with the British high command, as it squandered the single most vital resource of the war – men. The British had plenty of ships and even naval guns, but the incredible volume of resources this would have consumed could easily have been turned into thousands of rifles, bombs, tanks, and bullets. On top of this, there were simply not spare thousands of men which would have been needed. The design was simply too wasteful, too preposterous, too big, too crude, and too ill-considered to ever gain any traction with any authorities even if it had ever been brought to their attention.

Post-World War I, what became of Atherton is unclear. Certainly, if he enlisted at some point, he survived or is somehow unrecorded by the Common War Graves Commission as a death in either WW1 or WW2. No further patents were submitted in his name and he appears to have disappeared into history. His fort, thankfully, disappeared as well, as the appearance of actual tanks ended many such ideas of fantastical, outlandish, and frankly, ill-conceived giant wheeled vehicles.

While looking like an undersized cart in this side profile, Atherton’s mobile fort was meant to be 150 meters high and cross the English channel on its own wheels. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.

 Atherton’s Mobile Fort specifications

Dimensions Up to 150 m high and est. 15 m wide.
Wheels: 300’ (91.4 m) diameter, 30’ (9.1 m) wide
 Weight Up to 10,800 tons (10,973 tonnes)
Crew Hundreds
Propulsion Steam boilers or internal combustion type
Armament 4 primary turrets with a pair of large caliber guns
Secondary belt of smaller guns
Multiple Maxim machine guns
Poison gas projector/s
Armor Heavy armor including a sand-filled or sandbag roof, and water jets
Total production None Built



WW2 British Tactics

British Somaliland Campaign 1920

The 21 day campaign

Map of British Somaliland in 1920, showing the route taken by the Somaliland Camel Corps during the campaign of 1920. Source: Pinterest

The Mad Mullah

Somaliland had been a British protectorate since 1855, covering some 176,000 square kilometres bound by French interests to the North West, Italian interests to the East and Abyssinia to the south. This tiny region supplied beef to Aden which was vital to British global interests as a stopping-off point for coaling ships between India and Great Britain. Aden also controlled the horn of Africa. The campaign to suppress an uprising there lasted from 1899 to 1920.

The Deervish uprising had begun a generation earlier, at the call of Sayyid Muhammed Abdille Hassan, also known derisively by the British as the ‘Mad Mullah’. This nickname started in 1899, when the Consul General J. Hayes-Sadler described him by saying “the Mullah has gone off his head” after an incident when he tried to shoot his nephew and managed to kill his own horse instead. This appearance of a loose grasp on reality was reinforced by Sheikh Salih, the head of the Islamic Salihiya Order in Mecca, who denounced Hassan as a sinner against Allah, his Prophet, and not a true Muslim.

Hassan, belonging to the Ogaaden clan and also the religious Salihiya Order, had a fanatical view of Islam that he wanted to instill on all Somalis, whether Muslim or Christian. As such, this was not a Somali uprising against British colonial rule as much as a religious civil war in the region, pitting the Muslim Salihiya adherents against both Christians and the Qadiriya Order of Islam. By 1899, this call to Jihad had amassed some 5,000 men and became widely known as the ‘Dervishes’.

Four land campaigns were mounted by the British between 1900 and 1905, costing some GB£3 million and over 1,400 Imperial (400 British and ~1,000 local forces) deaths. The Mullah had a particular fondness for beheading prisoners. Over his time, he was responsible for around 200,000 deaths in an area with a population of just around 3 million people.

Even with a somewhat weak victory in 1905, the situation was still volatile and barey concealed through 1908, when a new conflict began. Campaigns effectively followed the 1905 ‘victory’ for the next 15 years.

The war was a low key affair with few battles and mostly skirmishes, as the Dervish forces were unable to face the British forces in open battle on equal terms. When they tried, such as at the battle of Jid Ali, it ended with 58 dead British and over 1,000 dead Dervishes. Their best tactics were ambush, hit and runs and incidents such as the ambush at Gumburu Hill, which left 198 British and allied forces dead. These showed that the Dervish problem needed to be resolved permanently. Over the years of WW1 (1914-1919), the Dervishes were increasingly weakened by factional and tribal infighting, but they remained a substantial concern to the Empire, as they could foray far within that part of Africa and cause a lot of disruption – particularly if that disruption affected the vital Indian supply route. In total, the Mullah’s forces amounted to around 1,000 men, with his seat of power at the large fort complex at Taleh (known in Somali as ‘Taleex’), close to the border with Italian Somaliland. Taleh was a massive complex consisting of a large main fort (Silsilad), about 107 m wide by 91 m long, a walled prison (Dawad), the Mullah’s house (Falad), and a lookout post (Daar Illale), as well as a tomb built for the Mullah’s father and a mosque. The fort was built by the Mullah with assistance from skilled stone mason from Yemen between around 1909 to 1910. Lookout towers on the fort were around 15 m high, providing a commanding view of the area.

Aerial photograph of the Taleh fort complex. The large circular compound is the primary fort and the heights of the structures over the surrounding land could not be overestimated as an excellent defensive structure. Source:
Aerial view of the primary fort building at Taleh. The large internal area, thick walls, and multiple buildings meant a lengthy siege was likely necessary to take this structure. Source:

With the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, British and Empire troops were needed more and more in Europe and the Middle East. The Mullah was a continual nuisance and troops were also needed in this region. As of March 1915, the British had a force of over 1,600 men from the Somaliland Camel corps, Indian Army, and Somali Illaloes, along with a pair of 12-pounder field guns. This was a good sized garrison, but not sufficient to defeat the Mullah, so instead the plan was to keep him out of trouble. Mostly defensive operations were carried out to defeat incursions by Dervish forces, along with regular patrolling. The standard of the Mullah’s men was not great and they were regularly defeated by the Empire’s forces whenever they met. What the Mullah’s men did have on their side was surprise and mobility. The British goal was one of containment, to try and keep the Mullah in the eastern part of the protectorate and out of the Somali grazing grounds. The Mullah did receive some assistance from the Central Powers in the form of advice and technical assistance from the Ottoman Turks, although the German armorer sent to help him manufacture and repair weapons in 1916 was treated so badly he had to escape and, in 1917, died on his way out of the country.

With 1919 and the end of WW1, the British Cabinet could focus on the Empire’s issues to a greater extent. A new air arm, formed under Group-Captain Robert Gordon, was formed in Somaliland. This would be one of the first post-war operations for the newly formed Royal Air Force (formed April 1918) which replaced the Royal Flying Corps. Planning for the campaign was done by Major General Sir A. Hoskins. Anxious to put an end to the Mullah once and for all, the task force, designated ‘Z’ (‘Zed’) Force for reasons of secrecy, would break new ground for the British military, combining naval, land, and sea power in colonial ‘policing’.

Z force (‘Zed’ force)

Under the command of Gordon, 800 tonnes of supplies along with aircraft were delivered by HMS Ark Royal to the port of Berbera on 30th December 1919. HMS Ark Royal was a 7,080-ton aircraft carrier that started life as a merchant ship and had been converted to carry aircraft in 1914. She carried four 12-pdr. guns and 4 seaplanes as a normal complement of aircraft.

HMS Ark Royal in 1918. Source: US National Archives via wiki

An advance party had already landed in Somaliland on 25th October 1919 and created a small landing strip at Las Khorai. The primary base for the campaign would be Berbera, with an advanced base as Eil due Elan. With the arrival of twelve DH9A aircraft, along with 36 officers and 183 airmen, on 30th December, these were moved to Las Khorai and assembled. By 19th January, assembly and flight testing were complete, meaning that the air campaign began on 21st January 1920.

De Havilland DH.9A bomber. Source: Imperial War Museum

This was an RAF operation, including all of the air and land forces. Ground operations would begin when the RAF said so.

The Royal Navy force off the coast would be able to provide fire support within the range of their guns, but also ensuring the security of the coastline. In this role, they were also assisted by an armed Dhow which was crewed by ratings from the Navy. HMS Odin and HMS Clio were both 1,070-ton sloops with a crew of 150 men and armed with six 4” guns and four 3 pdr. guns.

HMS Odin. Source: Naval
HMS Clio. Source: Naval

Between the 12 pdr. guns of HMS Ark Royal, and the 4” and 3 pdr. guns of the two sloops, the Royal Navy could provide fire support inland. The 12 pdr. could deliver a 5.67 kg (12.5 lb.) High Explosive shell to a target 9,970 meters away, whilst the larger 4” gun could land a 24.26 kg (53.5 lb.) shell some 14,950 meters inland. It was not far, but it was sufficient to ensure that the landing party could be covered for at least its initial phases.

Ground Forces

With no aerial opposition, the aircraft of Z Force would rule the sky, but land forces would be needed for the taking of the Somali forts. Ground support elements would accompany Z Force, namely ‘A’ Force with the Somaliland Camel Corps, portions of the 101st Grenadiers and some scouts; ’B’ Force with a battalion of King’s African Rifles and scouts; a force of tribal levies; a landing party from the Royal Navy; and a special transportation force to keep them all supplied.

Petrol and oil supply dump at Eil dur Elan, guarded by men from 101st Grenadiers. Source:
The staging area at Eil dur Elan, with 3 of the DH-9 aircraft assembled and hidden from blowing dust by large grass screens 12’ (3.7 m) high and 50 yards (46 m) long. Source:

The Plan

The plan was split into two phases. Phase A was for half of the aircraft (6 planes) to support ‘A’ Force in occupying Eil dur Elan, with the other half of the aircraft tasked to ‘B’ Force at Las Khorai. ‘A’ Force would then move towards El Afweina to create an aerodrome from which it would bomb the Dervish forces, whilst ‘B’ Force would go straight for the fort at Baran.

Once Phase 1 was achieved, with the aerodrome built at El Afweina and the Baran fort taken, Phase 2 would start, which was the full-scale bombing and strafing of Dervish forces until such time as they were felt suitably cowed for the ground forces to attack. This would be a systematic attack, taking one fort from Dervish control at a time, while closing on Taleh progressively. The Somali tribal forces were deployed all across the region to conduct the type of nomadic raiding they were used to and best suited for. They would thus hamper the Dervish supply routes and intercept any fleeing forces.

A Vickers machine gun team of the Somaliland Camel Corps (S.C.C.) in action in the protectorate against troops of the Mullah in 1916 or 1917. Source:

Opening Strikes

The combat phase of the campaign began on 21st January 1920, with the 6 aircraft assigned to ‘A’ Force making their first combat mission, with the target of the Dervish fort at Medishe. Mullah Hassan had heard of the British operation, although likely had no comprehension of what an aircraft either was or certainly what control of the sky meant. He had, however, moved the bulk of his forces from their base at Taleh to Medishe. Thus, this first mission targeted the very heart of his army.

Unfortunately for the British, navigation over what was often mostly trackless arid scrubland from the air was not as easy as it looked, with few points by which to navigate. The result was that these 6 planes struggled to find Medishe. One had engine trouble and had to make an emergency landing at Las Khorai with ‘B’ Force.

In fact, only one plane managed to locate Medishe and dropped its complement of eight 20-pound (9 kg) incendiary bombs, as well as liberally spraying the fort with .303 caliber ammunition from its Lewis gun. On the plus side of the navigation mishap was that the other four planes managed to locate the other fort at Jid Ali and, rather than waste an opportunity, delivered their munitions there, to the surprise of the roughly 1,000 troops there. The cost of surprise with the aircraft was the ability to have learned the terrain beforehand with aerial reconnaissance.

This was the first introduction of the Mullah to airpower and it was no casual lesson. One of his leading allied Amirs supporting him and his revolt was killed and he narrowly escaped with his life, as he suffered burns to his clothing from the bombs at Medishe. One can only surmise that, had the other four aircraft bombed Medishe as well instead of Jid Ali, he may have been killed right on day 1.

Over the following two days (22nd and 23rd January), more raids were carried out against Medishe, although it was not without incident. On 21st January, just four planes were available and one had engine problems, meaning it had to turn back. The other three once more got lost and missed Medishe but again found Jid Ali instead. They dropped a pair of 112-pound (51 kg) bombs on the fort, followed by their full complement of 20-pound (9 kg) incendiary bombs on the Mullah’s cattle herd.

The Mullah’s force was terrified by this bombing and the raids successfully scattered the Dervishes. The Mullah, escaping with his life, fled south with his retinue and bulk of whatever force had not been killed or ran away, heading for his base at the Taleh fort complex. Or so the British thought. Mullah Hassan had actually taken refuge in a cave at Medishe and hid there until the end of January. Only a token Dervish force remained at Jid Ali.

There, the dispatch of those irregular loyal tribal forces proved providential, as the retreating forces of Mullah’s were in such utter disarray that these friendly Somali forces attacked, looted, and slaughtered most of the Mullah’s forces before the SCC could arrive and do the job.

‘B’ Force was doing equally well in its opening phase, advancing on the fort at Baran, arriving there at noon on 22nd January. This was no small ‘mud fort’, but a solidly built masonry structure with towers and walls 12 m and 4 m high, respectively.

The very substantial stone structure of Baran Fort. Light artillery and aerial bombing would barely scratch the stout stone walls. Source: Jardine

Around 80 Dervishes were located in the fort and began sniping at British forces as soon as they were within range. It seems that here, the decision was made to try and scare the defenders out rather than to destroy the fort, as the machine guns provided deliberate fire to ensure no more sniping would take place, and the Stokes mortars fired at it. Some 320 rounds were fired from the mortars but only hit the fort 6 times. They had been positioned too far away. The next day, after scouting by the Illaloes, the mortars were within 250 m and began firing again. Despite this and that 12 shells hit the fort, it was simply too substantial to make a significant difference and the Dervishes were not fleeing.

British 3” Stokes mortar in use in the Balkans in WW1. Source: Imperial War Museum

Rather than waste another day, it was decided at dusk to risk a small party to come and plant 45 kg of gun cotton by one of the towers, despite the open ground and Dervish snipers. This was done without injury and did the trick.

Just after dawn the next day (24th January), dozens of Dervishes were seen fleeing the fort to a small one further up the hill. Despite only being a reconnaissance platoon in strength, this force then assailed the remaining defenders in the fort to prevent their escape. The smaller position was dealt with by men of the KAR with no problems and all told, some 18 Dervish men, 3 women, and numerous animals had died between the somewhat ineffective bombing and the rush by men from the KAR the next morning. Three Askaris had been shot, although it is not known if they were killed or wounded. The rapidity of the action of the next morning and the gallantry of the demolition the night before earned these men of ‘B’ Force a pair of Military Crosses, a pair of African Distinguished Conduct Medals, and an Imperial Distinguished Conduct Medal.

If there had been some idea of saving the forts, this was gone by the 25th, when they were blown up to prevent them from being used again. ‘B’ Force was to move to Galgalla and wait for further orders.

Second Phase

Phase 2 of the operation was initiated on 24th January, as the Jid Ali and Medishe forts were all but abandoned and there were no more herds to bomb either. During one reconnaissance mission, one DH-9 was lost due to mechanical problems and had to land, forcing the two men into a 65 km march to the sea to be rescued by the Royal Navy.

On 28th January, ‘A’ Force moved out to Jid Ali and the token force there proved as stubborn as the one ‘B’ Force had found at Baran. A fresh air attack caused some of the Dervishes to leave. However, once more, the heavy masonry walls of the fort meant that the mortar fire was mostly ineffective. Rather than risk a full-scale attack and many deaths, it was decided to continue the shelling. It was then noticed the next morning (29th January) that the Dervishes had decided to leave the gate open. The fort was rushed by a British officer and two Illaloe scouts. Having taken Jid Ali, they found that the Dervishes had left the gate open when they had fled during the night, leaving behind numerous dead animals, 2 dead men, 76 rifles, and one small boy.

The troops from ‘B’ Force, who had been ordered to wait at Galgalla, had done so and, on 31st January, were ordered to move to Jid Ali to round up any remaining animals. It was in this operation that the remnants of an early war with the Dervishes were found on 6th February. This took the form of a pair of machine guns; a Maxim Nordfelt model 1895 and a tripod-mounted Vickers machine gun. Both had been converted from .450 caliber to .303 and appeared to have been dating from the battles of Erigo (1902) and Gumburu (1903). One other trophy, a bugle marked as belonging to the 2nd King’s African Rifles, was also recovered. The last post was blown on this bugle over the Jid Ali fort, as well as smaller ones as they were all blown up. The two machine guns were recovered back to base.

With the resounding defeat at Medishe and now faced with both Baran and Jid Ali in British hands, the Mullah, thoroughly beaten and humiliated, and who had been hiding in a cave, decided to make a break for it with whatever forces he had left to his power base at Taleh. The Somaliland Camel Force contingent of ‘A’ Force left in pursuit, heading straight for Taleh from Jid Ali, following his tracks.

There was other ground combat too, as the fort at Galbaridur needed to be seized as well. This was left to the Royal Naval force led by Captain Hewitt. With 100 men (including himself) from HMS Odin and HMS Clio, they were primarily armed with rifles, but also carried 3 Lewis guns, 2 Vickers machine guns, and had a single 12 pounder 4-cwt. naval field gun.

The heavy structure of Galbaribur fort overlooked by high ground. Source:

A small native contingent completed the force, including 28 of the invaluable Illaoe scouts and 112 native laborers to help move animals, supplies, and the field gun. The gun itself took 31 men to move and was hampered by the soft sandy ground over which they traveled. In anticipation of this, the wheels of the carriage had been fitted with large ‘feet’ to spread the load.

The 12 pounder 4-cwt. naval field gun and limber being pulled across the Somali desert. Source:

This force was disembarked at Sanak on 5th February and, having formed up into a cohesive unit, marched 5 km inland to a harbor area. This would allow them the first night under canvas whilst still being under the protection of the guns of their ships. The harbor area also had machine guns at each corner so that it was a well-protected square.

On 6th February, having taken breakfast with tea and bully beef, the force marched on the fort, arriving mid-afternoon. The RAF had dropped a load of bombs on it, but had done little damage. Galbaribur Fort was, like the others forts encountered, a large stout masonry structure with walls 1.7 m thick. Despite the best efforts of the Illaloes sneaking up to fire into the fort through its own loopholes, the Dervishes inside did not give up.

After breakfast on the 7th, the British decided to assault the fort with the men in an extended line, offering as few targets to the defenders as possible. Support fire was provided by the machine guns to keep the defenders as enclosed as possible and the 12 pounder gun blasted away with High Explosive shells at the upper levels. Despite some damage from the field gun, the fort did not collapse and the men who got to the wall could not climb it, as they were not provided with scaling ladders. The attack was called off and the troops retired for tea and a rethink.

By the morning of the 8th, new ammunition had been brought up for the field gun, including solid shot used as practice ammunition. Using a combination of these rounds to break up the exterior walls and then the HE rounds to smash holes, the next attack was substantially more effective and was covered once more by machine-gun fire from the Lewis guns on the nearby hillside. The attackers quickly occupied the roof of the fort and could both fire down onto the Dervishes below and throw grenades at them. Despite it being hopeless, there were still some resisting. After about 30 minutes, one Dervish, accompanied by some women and children, came out. The British implored the defenders to surrender to save any more women and children inside. They refused and three Illaloes were shot and wounded.

Nine more rounds from the field gun persuaded the Dervish commander to make a run for it, but he was shot down and killed. When the British entered the fort, they found all of the remaining Dervish troops had been killed and the 20 or so women and children were taken out. All told, some 15 Dervishes had been killed for no British loss. Like the other forts, this fort was also blown up to prevent it from being used again. The Naval landing party then turned about and headed back to their ships.

The Camel Corps pursuit of the Mullah had proven effective too as, on 9th February, just 20 km from Taleh, one of the Mullah’s sons told them he was at Taleh, besieged by 200 Somali loyalist troops, who prevented the Mullah from fleeing. Whether this was some family feud gone awry or a ruse de guerre to draw the SCC into an ambush is not known. The force was indeed ambushed that night while moving towards Taleh. The ambush was, however, fought off with great coolness, and an African Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded for Sgt Mohammed of the SCC.

The ambush had failed to kill anyone or delay the advance on the fort. At night time, the tired men of the SCC had the fort almost in sight.

The Mullah, in his rush to get to the fort and with the speed of the pursuit, had not had time to secure much of his supplies. Thanks to the quick action of the SCC, as well as the tribal forces which had been harassing the Mullah, a huge prize had been taken. For the British, the arms and supplies were perhaps the most valuable thing to take from the Mullah, comprising some 51 rifles, 2,000 rounds of ammunition, and 300 camel loads of supplies. For the tribal forces for whom animals were worth at least as much or more than gold, there was a prize of 1,400 camels, 450 cows, and 50 ponies.

The approaching Camel Corps forces were also faced with a counterattack by the Dervishes, amounting to a force of around 80 men to try and break through the defensive screen put up by the native troops. This failed and the approaching forces routed the Dervishes, as the SCC attack panicked the 150 or so men who were in the fort.

If anything, this great prize was a hindrance, as the native forces were now more interested in the animals than in pursuing the Mullah. The SCC continued, however, taking 150 men forward and located the Dervish bodyguard of the Mullah protecting his wives and children. This bodyguard was then killed and the Mullah’s family now fell almost completely into British hands.
Exhausted, and with prisoners and booty they had to control, the SCC had to give up the chase temporarily. This was despite finding evidence that the Mullah and 20 men were nearby, heading to Taleh.

Harassment of the SCC continued by the Mullah’s men. The SCC proved themselves both more stoic than their Dervish adversaries, but also less prone to flight and resisted no less than three ambushes on Garrowei on the 22nd and two others after. During these, the Mullah’s forces were repelled and four more African Distinguished Conduct Medals, along with an Indian Distinguished Service Medal, were awarded.

These medals were a small price to pay for not having to besiege and assault the fort complex at Taleh. With almost all of his supplies captured, most of his men dead, and most of his family in custody, the Mullah fled over the border into Italian Somaliland. With this, the British had cemented a victory and the Mullah had his loss and his humiliating rout. The SCC then entered and occupied Taleh Fort unhindered. With the combat operations over, forward air operations were then moved to Berbera to continue in the colonial policing role.

After the Battle

With the threat of the Mullah gone, the British reasserted colonial rule in the region. The Governor of Somaliland was even able to fly out to see the success in person within just 48 hours of the victory, thus stamping the authority of the British firmly in the region.

Mullah Hassan, with just a few of his most loyal followers, had fled over the border into Italian-administered Somaliland and then into Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). The governor of British Somaliland, Geoffrey Archer, tried to use this opportunity to persuade the Mullah to seek peace with his neighboring Sheiks.

The memory of these Somali Sheiks was long enough to recall Hassan’s penchant for beheadings and violent killing, murder, and torture of civilians and rejected this offer. Not that it mattered anyway, Hassan was unreliable and unreasonable, and negotiations fell apart.

A thoroughly beaten man managed to escape justice one last time by dying of influenza. Thus, on 23rd November 1920, when he died, the Mullah and the threat he posed to British Imperial interests and to his neighbors were over. Today, the Mullah is seen by some in Somalia as a symbol of resistance against British rule, carefully forgetting over 20 years of depravity and murder.

The real winner of the campaign was the RAF. A new organization had made sure it had a reputation for independent and coordinated action where airpower could be the decisive element in a campaign or battle. That was not the only victory for the RAF either, for not only did they show the potential power of bombing, but also that even rugged and remote areas were within reach. The areas to hide in for opposing forces had become much smaller. Finally, there was also the use of aircraft to ferry the wounded to help – something new in warfare.

“…had it not been for the demoralising effect of the aerial bombardment, the Dervishes would still be disturbing the peace in North-Eastern Africa”

Source: Jardine. p.280


Within Z Force would be a new novelty never before used by the British – the air ambulance. This was primarily an RAF operation rather than an army one and an RAF medical unit was attached to Z Force. Led by a medical officer called William Tyrell – a man who had already conducted secret surveillance of the area on the ground in November 1919. Of the 12 De Havilland DH-9 biplanes which were sent in pieces from Britain, one was equipped as an air ambulance. The primary modification carried out was the fitting of an enclosed cabin behind the pilot’s seat, in the rear fuselage of the aircraft. With the appearance of a large rounded lozenge, a single occupant could be placed inside in the lying position and evacuated.

All of the DH-9s, including the ambulance version, arrived just after Z Force, in January 1920.

This is perhaps the first air ambulance ever, anywhere and, if so, then Captain James Godman, aged 45, with necrosis of the middle toe on his left foot, was the first to benefit from it.

Such a ‘minor’ injury could easily have become infected and led to gangrene and even death. However, once evacuated, he and numerous others had their lives and health saved. In total, this ambulance ferried 13 officers and around 100 other ranks from the field to the hospital, and at least five other men wounded who were not admitted. Of all of these men, just 11 did not return to duty – a remarkable success rate for both the ambulance and the subsequent medical care the men received.

The first casualty, Captain J. Goodman, evacuated by air from El Afweina to Eil dur Elan. Source:
The modified DH.9A air ambulance with the obvious ambulance pod on the back and the red cross flag draped over it. Source: MOD Air Historical Branch

It is worth noting, however, that, along with the 11 standard DH-9s, the hospital version was also capable of offensive use. The red cross markings could be removed, as they were in the form of a sheet fastened around the rear of the fuselage, over the passenger cabin area. The new passenger cabin at the back replaced the bomb-aimer’s position behind the pilot and also stripped the aircraft of its single Lewis .303 caliber machine gun that would be operated from this position. Given the utter lack of any possible threat from the air, this was absolutely not a problem of any concern.

Other than that, this was a standard DH-9 with the same 12.9 m wingspan and 230 hp Siddeley Puma petrol engine. It is unclear if it actually carried any armament at any time but, given that the ambulance part could be used as required and that the plane was otherwise just a regular DH.9, there is no reason to suppose that it could not have been used for attacks on the Mullah’s forces if it needed to.

Conclusion – What about the Tanks?

It is perhaps obvious that tanks were not used in this conflict. The British had developed and deployed tanks in 1916 and were, even by 1919, still generally large and rather slow. The smallest and fastest British tank of 1920 was the Medium Mark A Whippet, capable of a blistering 8.3 miles per hour (13 km/h). Completely invulnerable to any armament the Mullah had at his disposal short of a field gun, this tank, even with a limited range of just 80 miles (129 km), might have seemed like a logical choice to take along. Or, if not a tank, perhaps an armored car, like a Rolls Royce.

The British Medium Mark A Whippet. At 14 tons and completely impervious to small arms fire, the Whippet could manage a top speed of 8.3 mph (13 km/h). Armed with machine guns, the tank proved a success on the Western Front in WW1. Source: IWM

At less than half the weight (under 5 tonnes fully laden, compared to the 14 tonnes) of the Whippet, and with a similar level of protection (again, all but invulnerable to anything the Mullah had access too short of a field gun), an armored car was perhaps even more logical. With a range of 150 miles (241 km), it could go nearly twice the distance of the Whippet and 5 times more quickly too, with a top speed on a good hard surface of a little over 40 miles per hour (64 km/h). Tanks had been used to good effect against the Ottoman Turks in Palestine during the war and the armored cars across the Middle East too, most famously by Major T. E. Lawrence. Less well known was their use in German West Africa during the war in East Africa in 1915, where, despite the terrain, they proved a useful force multiplier.

Rolls Royce armored cars seen during the 1915 campaign in German West Africa.
Source: Rolls Royce

Yet, despite these successes, neither was used. That is not to say that post-campaign, they were not reported being used, because they were. Following a confused telegram from Nairobi at the conclusion of the campaign, several British newspapers reported the use of tanks during the campaign, which was completely untrue.

“The news of the downfall of the Dervish power was greeted with enthusiasm by the home pressmen [the British domestic media] who, misguided by a characteristically false news cable from Nairobi, added a panegyric of the efficacy of the tank in savage warfare to their usual recommendation in favour of a railway from Berbera to Bohotle”

Source: Jardine. p.284

Whilst, even before the existence of the RAF, there had been armored cars in non-Army hands – such as the work conducted by the Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.) in WW1 and even though the RAF did have some armored vehicles, they were simply not used.

It could be speculated that the reason why they were not was because the goal was to try and prove the power of aircraft over land forces, yet this had clearly been a gamble. The final outcome of the campaign supported this gamble as well. Casualties had, after all, been light amongst British forces – very light. The cost too was low, just GBP £83,000 (GBP £3.8 million in 2020 values). Even then, it was only so expensive because of the high value of the Rupee in which the locals were paid compared to the British pound at the time. The normal exchange rate was around half of the exchange rate at the time, so this sent a strong message. A campaign of colonial policing from the air was cheap and a major land campaign with light troops could be mounted for little expense without the need for costly tanks and heavy artillery. Indeed, this was exactly the lesson former Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Beatty (a veteran of the battle of Omdurman in 1889 against the Jihadist Islamic Mahdist forces of Abdullah al-Taashi), when he reflected on the whole affair in 1930, asking:

“How was the Air Service to be developed to take over those humdrum responsibilities. Mr. Churchill, who was Secretary of State for Air immediately after the War, said that the Air Service must accept in peace some of the responsibility of trying to keep the peace in countries and in waters that had been patrolled in the past by the Navy and the Army, and that, if it could not do so, it would not be bearing its fair share of the burden of Imperial defence.


At the same time, he proposed that the Air Service should be responsible for keeping peace and order in what was then known as Mesopotamia. The Air Staff willingly accepted that responsibility. Why did we accept it, and why did we think that we could possibly succeed? We thought that, if full use were made of the mobility and the moral effect of the Air Force, it could keep order in these wide spaces of the British Empire. I would ask your Lordships to remember that, outside Europe, the Empire consists of very wide open spaces. We thought that, if mobility in the air were fully used and if a rising took place 200 miles away, instead of having to take weeks, if not months, in organising and getting to the seat of the disturbance a ground force, within perhaps two hours, aeroplanes could be there. There would be no vulnerable lines of communication to attack; there would be no convoys to cut up; there would be no railways and roads to make; and that is what we mean by using to the fullest extent its mobility. In operations by ground troops in these open spaces…


…I do say that we should investigate and find out what other humdrum responsibility the Air Force is justified in taking over in peace time. What about the frontier of India? What about the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Sudan, and other places? All I say is that, if after inquiry, it is found that one of two points is not satisfied, then there is no justification to make any alterations in the existing system. Those two points are—if the Air Force can do it more efficiently for the same money, or as efficiently for less money. If neither of those two points can be met in any one case, I for one do not want to press for the Air Force to take over the duties, because I am really thinking of the efficiency of defence as a whole…”

Earl Beatty to the UK House of Lords 9th April 1930

He was, of course, partially correct. Airpower could reach far into the vast expanses at the corners of the Empire, whether it was the deserts of Somaliland or the mountains of Buchanaland, but this was exactly the gamble which had been taken. It is because this campaign was so successful, the enemy, most of whom knew nothing of man-made flight or the power of modern explosives, pastoral and often technologically ignorant forces who often fled at the sight of the machines and the bombs. When it came to fighting on the ground against the forts, it had taken just a few hardy and determined defenders to hold up a vastly superior opposing force supported by artillery and machine guns. Walls were not breached by cannon fire or the aerial bombardment but by the fortitude and fortunes of old-fashioned infantry attacks. It can therefore be speculated that, had the Mullah had even one properly positioned machine gun or dispersed his riflemen more effectively, far from a glittering success, this could have been yet another disaster for the British.

For sure such a defeat would have led to problems for the RAF, but it would also have avoided the tempting and inaccurate conclusion that a lightly armed and rapidly moving force was sufficient for colonial work. This, despite the fact there had been a very real risk of heavy assault-type warfare, and that, whilst airpower had scared the Mullah and made him flee, it neither secured the land nor brought a victory in of itself. A retreat to the Taleh fort complex, for example, would have protected the Mullah, as the size of the complex would simply have rendered the besieging forces as exactly that – a besieging force too small to take it by force and sat in the baking scrubland at the mercy of the climate. On the other hand – a couple of armored cars or even a tank or two could approach the walls with virtual impunity, spaying the defenders with fire or even used to plant charges to demolish sections. Yet none of this was done and thankfully for the British campaign, had not been needed.

The expedition had skirted with disaster, got away with it, and pulled off a tremendous success. In doing so, they had laid down a marker for future campaigns in other far-flung areas of the empire which required policing. For the following two decades, this type of campaign and mindset had loomed over the British military.

However, concerned over the costs of securing the Empire, there was a continual desire for small, fast tanks for fighting a lightly armed enemy and a reliance on fighting a poorly armed adversary. By the late 1930s, it was clear that this sort of thought which had taken hold during the interwar period had been a fallacy and, whilst this campaign was not the sole reason for the British tank fleet being dominated by small, light, and/or thinly armored vehicles, it was certainly a contributing factor. One can only speculate as to what the ‘lessons’ of this campaign might have had for tanks if they had been bought and used.


Jardine, D. (1923). The Mad Mullah of Somaliland.
Levin, E. (2016). The Rolls-Royce Armoured Car. Rolls Royce Enthusiasts Club, UK
Longoria, M. (1992). A historical view of air policing doctrine. Air University Press
NavWeaps at
Naval at
Oral account of Colonel Murray Lewis re: service with Somaliland Camel Corps, Imperial War Museum Item 4423
Scholl, M., & Geshekter, C. (1989). The Zed Expedition: the world’s first air ambulance? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Vol.82, Nov. 89
Slight, J. (2011). British and Somali view of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan’s Jihad 1899-1920.
Somaliland 1920
Successful Operations Against Mullah. Hansard House of Commons Vol.125 Debates 17th February 1920
The Air Force. Hansard House of Lords Vol.77 Debates 9th April 1930

WW2 French Prototypes

Renault Improved Battle Tank

ww2 French TanksFrance (1939) Battle tank- None built

In 1939, France was on the cusp of a new war with Germany. At the time, many foresaw a return to the static type of attritional warfare of World War One. France was very well set for this type of warfare, with large numbers of well-protected tanks and the formidable Maginot Line on which was hoped to crush any German attack.

The great tank designer and industrialist Louis Renault had been a hero in the First World War with his groundbreaking 2-man FT design. Through the interwar years, his was a magical name in manufacturing and vehicle design, as famous for his cars as for his tanks. It is perhaps odd therefore that, in 1939, with a new war declared against Germany, he submitted a design not so much revolutionary or groundbreaking, but more like a squashed and flattened turretless Char B1. A vehicle with a singular purpose, this was Renault’s plan for a heavily armored and mine-proof tank.


The objective of this proposal was to improve the design of existing tanks in service to make them more resilient to crossing minefields. This would be done by means of adopting both very wide tracks and also by making them run around the outside of the hull. The tracks would be so wide that the pair of them together would occupy not less than half the width of the entire vehicle.

Side view of Renault’s Improved BattleTank. (Image has been digitally cleaned) Source: French Patent FR865243

Not only were the tracks to be extremely wide, but they were also to be very thick, with a large pitch, and feature a flange that extended over the wide edges of each link. This served to overlap and provide for a continuously moving armored belt. The drawing provided by M. Renault showed 34 links per side on the tank. The thickness of the track was actually specifically made to match the thickness of the armor on the tank and be made from steel of high hardness. Thus, M. Renault designed the tracks to be part of the actual armor of the tank. The pins connecting each of the links were also to be substantially thicker and heavier than a standard track pin and, thus, these tracks would be resistant to the explosion of any mine the vehicle would drive over.

Front view of Renault’s Improved BattleTank. (Image has been digitally cleaned). From the front, the enemy would see more track than they would tank. Source: French Patent FR865243

Suspension for this very heavyweight track would be provided by rows of rollers under the floor and rear part of the tank, with no less than 5 rollers per link. These rollers would be provided with springing in order to provide both shock absorption from a mine blast or from normal travel. An additional roller could be held slung underneath the vehicle, in the narrow space not already covered by the tracks in order to detonate mines. Thus, this vehicle as it moved forwards would clear an entire width through a minefield as it traveled.

The rollers on which the extremely heavy track would move and their vertical elastic suspension meant to provide energy absorption from any mine blast. Source: French patent FR865243

The remaining space

The tracks were extremely wide as a percentage of the width of the vehicle, wider perhaps than any other before or since. However, they were not limiting M. Renault’s tank concept. There would still be space in the hull for weaponry and M. Renault took pains to describe what he saw as an improvement over existing designs in this regard. Firstly, mounted centrally on the front in the narrow hull, would be a small ball-type mounting for a light cannon or machine gun. There was another one at the rear. There was obviously insufficient space for a turret. Even the rather small French turrets of the era would be too large and M. Renault proposed a simple cupola for the commander on top instead. In order to provide fire to the sides, another ball mount was placed almost directly above the rearmost point of contact of the track with the ground. Thus, the tank would have at least two machine guns and most likely three, with the rearmost position best suited to a machine gun and the front position to a cannon.


The large boxy interior would provide space for a powerful engine, sufficient to propel this design. M. Renault chose not to suggest any particular type or prospective power output. The engine, judging by the position of the air intakes in his drawings, would be either centrally located – something very awkward for the crew to cope with, as well as noisy and hazardous, or, more likely towards the rear, with a small access tunnel to the rear weapon position. Such a position would mean some ducting for the air intakes to get to the engine for cooling and combustion. However, it was actually divided inside, M. Renault described two chambers, an engine space and a ‘control and combat room’, meaning that, just like his famous FT design of WW1, the engine would be at least separated from the crew space. Drive from the engine to the tracks was provided by drive sprockets at the back.


M. Renault, as would be expected in a patent, provided no exact thicknesses or dimensions of parts or fittings of the design, save for the desire that the tracks be of at least equal thickness to the armor. It is hard to imagine that, in 1939, a man of M. Renault’s experience and capability would not be aware of the German 37 mm anti-tank gun and its capabilities. The British would essentially work off roughly 60 mm of armor as being necessary to protect against that gun’s armor-piercing round. The preeminent French Heavy tank of the era, the Char B1, had only 40 mm and was being improved to a 60 mm standard as the Char B1 bis. It is hard to imagine that anything less than 60 mm would be suitable for such a tank, as it would clearly have to be leading any attack, clearing the mines for following vehicles. Remembering that the tracks were to be equally armored to the hull, this would also mean that the tracks would be around 60 mm thick. Certainly, this would be sufficient to prevent the vehicle from being tracked by a regular anti-tank mine. It would also make for a rather hefty vehicle. The B1 bis was a large tank, over 6 m long, and nearly 3 m high, weighing in at around 31 tonnes. Being smaller than the B1 and bis versions, this vehicle was still carrying very heavy armor for 1939. It is hard to estimate the weight of the vehicle as being anything less than around 25 tonnes.

Plan view of Renault’s Improved BattleTank. (Image has been digitally cleaned) Source: French Patent FR865243


There was no detail provided as to the number of crewmen which would be needed for this improved tank, but a good estimate can be drawn from the details he outlines. For a start, the tank needed a commander positioned high up in the hull, using the cupola, and a driver located in the front, likely low down. A gunner, positioned higher up, could have operated the cannon. That was at least three crew, but this did not allow for anyone to operate the side or rear machine guns. However, three additional weapons did not mean three additional crew, as the rear-facing machine gun would have little real use to justify a crew member just for that. Just two additional crew might have been needed as gunners, totaling 5 people in the tank.

The Renault FZ design bears a striking similarity to the later improved tank idea in shape and in the frontal armament although it retains the suspension of the older FT. Source: Pinterest


It is hard to gauge quite what potential a turretless tank might have offered the French Army of 1940. That army already had around 4,000 tanks of various types at its disposal, including the Renault R35 (10.6 tonnes, up to 43 mm of armor, armed with a 37 mm cannon and a single machine gun), the Hotchkiss H35 (11 tonnes, up to 40 mm of armor, armed with a 37 mm cannon and a single machine gun), the venerable 6.5 tonne Renault FT (with up to just 22 mm of armor and either a 37 mm cannon or machine gun), and the impressive 28 tonne Char B1 and B1 bis (with up to 60 mm of armor, a 47 mm gun in a turret ad a 75 mm howitzer in the hull, amongst others). France was well equipped in tank terms, so anything this new and “improved” tank had to offer had to go beyond the plethora of vehicles available.

The ability to drive over a minefield was clearly advantageous in an era where many foresaw warfare returning to some semblance of what was experienced a generation earlier, with heavily protected defensive lines. Other tanks also had the ability to cross and clear minefields with rollers and mine plows designed and able to be fitted to anything from the Renault FT to the Char B and R35.

Drawings page from French Patent FR865243, showing the design of Renault’s Improved Battle Tank of 1939. Source: French Patent FR865243


The timing of M. Renault’s design was to ensure it would go nowhere. France, in company with Great Britain, had declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 in response to the invasion of Poland. Perhaps it was this event that spurred M. Renault to think up this design, as it was filed as an application on 21st December 1939. Six months later, however, on 5th June 1940, Operation Fall Rot (Case Red) – the invasion of France – began. At this time, M. Renault was actually in Washington D.C. at the behest of the French government to discuss plans for mass production of tanks with the Americans.

In less than three weeks, the French resistance had collapsed and, on 22nd June 1940, Marshal Petain signed an armistice with the Germans at Compiegne, bringing the invasion of France to an end. Renault’s factory at Billancourt was thus within the zone of occupation of German forces in northern France and squarely under the control of the French Vichy government – the collaborationist puppet government operating in France under German direction. Management of Renault’s factory was administered by the Germans and, whilst undoubtedly he did work under these conditions, it is hard to see what other choice he may have had in the matter.

Louis Renault, June 1940. Source: US Library of Congress

It is perhaps surprising to many that the functions of government in France still continued during this Vichy period and this patent from M. Renault is a good example of this. Despite the occupation, his patent was granted on 17th February 1941 and published on 16th May that year. Whether or not this patent might even be considered valid is perhaps debatable, given questions over the legitimacy or otherwise of the Vichy government, but it would not matter to M. Renault. The vehicle was never built or deployed, it was too late to have any utility for French forces and, although it is hard to imagine that the German occupiers would not have seen it, they took no action either.

M. Renault died on 24th October 1944, just weeks after his incarceration in the prison at Fresnes, Val-de-Marne, south of Paris, awaiting trial for alleged crimes of collaborating with the Germans. This patent, like many others filed during this Vichy period, were filed and forgotten.

The Renault Improved Battle Tank was oddly reminiscent of WWI designs and could hardly be called an improvement. Illustration by Pavel Carpaticus, funded by our Patreon campaign.


  • French Patent FR865243 filed 21st December 1939, granted 17th February 1941, published 16th May 1941
  • Vauvallier, F. (2014). French Tanks and Armoured Vehicles 1914-1940. Histoire and Collections, Paris, France
Cold War British Prototypes

Challenger 1 / Valiant Hybrid ‘Mk.7’

United Kingdom (1984 – 1986)
Cold War MBT  – None built

The Newcastle-based firm of Vickers Defence Systems had been building tanks on Tyneside for decades but had struggled in the 1980s to find markets for its tanks. With the unveiling of the Chobham armor technology in 1976 and Vickers being brought into the committee on its use, they obviously wanted to make use of this latest protection technology for their own tanks to try and meet the new export markets. The first attempt to move beyond the otherwise very competent Mk.3 design was the Mk.4, later reworked and known as the Valiant. The Valiant was a solid design with several significantly advanced features such as the all-aluminum hull and brand new fire-control system. When the Valiant failed to receive any orders, plans were put in place to upgrade the mobility aspect of the vehicle, but the hull was lost to an accident leaving just the turret needing a new body. A solution proposed was to use the already in production Challenger 1 hull for this to create a brand new tank – the Vickers Mk.7.

The British Challenger 1 MBT. Source: Mark Nash Photography

The background

The Mk.7 started life as a goal to combine Chobham armor technology with the experience gained in the production of the Mk.3. The first attempt had been the Mk.4, a new turret made from cast steel with Chobham armor and an all-aluminum hull. That project was let down very early by the RO L7A3 105 mm gun which, despite being an excellent gun in its own right, was simply inadequate for the modern battlefield with a new generation of Soviet tanks like the T-72 fielded and exported in increasingly large numbers. The Mk.4 turret, therefore, was redeveloped quickly to be a ‘Universal’ Turret, one with a carefully designed mounting able to take the L7A3 105 mm, the L11A5 120 mm, and even the German 120 mm smoothbore. In this way, it could appeal to both first-world armies who wanted a 120 mm gun and also to an export market where a 105 mm gun might be considered a cost-effective alternative. The vehicle was quickly rebranded as the Valiant.

Vickers Mk.4/Valiant during early trials. Source: Vickers

The Valiant had also included a state-of-the-art suite of fire control making it a very potent machine for delivering firepower on the battlefield. Its drawback had been an automotive one and despite plans in hand for an improved version, an accident wrecked the hull.

Slipping off a low loader, the Valiant fell onto its side and rolled on the roof, causing damage to the optics and causing irreparable damage to the hull. Source:

With the loss of the Valiant hull, ideas for improvements based on the Valiant’s automotives had to be shelved, as there was no budget to design and build a new hull. Instead, the work was done to salvage the turret, repair the optics, and hunt for a new hull with hopefully some improved mobility.

The first candidate for this new hull was that of their direct opposition, the Challenger I hull of ROF Leeds. Their proposed marriage would have been the first instance of the Vickers Mark 7, but it never got further than a proposal.


The optics for the Universal Turret were state of the art for the time. Firstly, the commander was provided with a slightly raised cupola consisting of 6 fixed x1 magnification non-reflecting Heliotype viewers. Sighting for the commander was provided by the French SFIM VA 580-10 2-axis gyro stabilised panoramic (360 degreesdegree) sight. This sight had various magnification modes, x3 and x10 and incorporated ana Nd-YAG-type laser rangefinder. In addition to this was a PPE Condor-type 2-axis gyro-stabilised image intensifier (Phillips UA 9090 thermal sight) displayed on a 625-line television monitor for both gunner and commander alike.

Gunner’s and commander’s stations inside the Vickers Universal Turret. Source: BAE

The gunner had a x10 magnification Vickers Instruments L30 x10 telescopic laser sight with Barr and Stroud LF 11 Nd-YAG-type laser rangefinder fitted with a projected reticle image (PRI) for ranging. In addition to this, he was provided with a Vickers instrumenta Vickers instruments GS10 periscopic sight for target acquisition. The loader was provided with a single AFV No.10 Mk.1 observation periscope. The driver’s optics consisted of a single wide-anglewide angle episcope in the centre-front of the hull


The Universal Turret was able to mount a choice of main gun with the two primary options being the British 120 mm L11A5 rifled gun or the German 120 mm smoothbore from Rheinmetall with ammunition storage in the hull, turret bustle, and with a ready rack in the turret basket.

Elevation for the main gun was limited to -10 to +20 degrees and, loaded manually, the rate of fire was given as 10 rounds per minute (1 every 6 seconds) with the British 120 mm gun. A Vickers muzzle reference system (MRS) on the end of the barrel added additional information into the computer system and the barrel was clad in a thermal sleeve to reduce distortion.

The fire control system and gun stabilisation system was an all-electric system developed by Marconi. This system a built-in laser rangefinder and a brand new ballistic computer to improve the chances of a first-round hit against static and moving targets as well as for supporting firing on the move. This system used the SFCS 600 computer derived from the GCE 620 system installed on the Vickers Mk.3 with some improvements known as the Marconi Radar systems Centaur 1 system.

The Vickers Universal Turret as it would later be advertised for the Mk.7/2 fitted with the Rheinmetall 120 mm smoothbore gun. Note the storage for 15 rounds in the turret bustle. Source: Lobitz

The RO L11A5 120 mm gun, made by Royal Ordnance, Nottingham, was 7.34 m long and weighed 1,782 kg. It featured improvements over the earlier designs by using a forged upstand for the muzzle reference system and featured a smaller volume and lighter fume extractor than the L11A2. As a result of these changes, the gun was out of balance so 7.7 kg of additional weights had to be added to counterbalance it normally.

Secondary armament included a single 7.62 mm machine Hughes chain gun mounted coaxially with the main gun and a second 7.62 mm machine gun (L37A2) in a remote-control mount next to the commander’s cupola on the roof. In total 3,000 rounds for these could be carried. Both of these weapons were interchangeable with a variety of commercially available 12.7 mm machine guns.


The turret was large and rectangular with vertical sides and an angled front made from flat panels and with the gun located centrally on the front of the turret. On the roof were two circular hatches for the commander on the right, and the loader on the left. A rectangular sight was provided on the front right of the turret roof for the gunner who, in keeping with British general tank-layouts, was located on the right, in front of the commander. All 3 turret crew were positioned on a turntable which rotated with the turret and which was supported on steadying rollers as opposed to the conventional turret-basket concept. The floor of this rotating platform was covered with non-slip aluminium plating and also contained the ready-ammunition stowage. The turret sat on the Challenger 1 hull which was conventionally arranged with the driver in the front, fighting compartment in the middle on top of which the turret sat, and engine compartment in the rear.


The turret was a steel base structure and, although the exact makeup was never released, it should be borne in mind that the original Valiant (or Mk.4 originally as it was) was based on the technology from the Mk.3. The Mk.3 had moved from an all-welded steel turret to a cast one to improve ballistic protection and, although the technology for the Mk.4 followed much of the lessons from the Mk.3, it appears to have switched back to an all-welded turret in order to accommodate the block-like Chobham armor packs on top. This would be in contrast to the Challenger 1, then coming into service, which used a front half made from a complex steel casting and welded rear portions with the Chobham packs over the front and sides.

Chobham armor covered the whole front of the turret and the sides to approximately ⅔ of the way back, at which point they became hollow boxes for storage around the rear corners. In the centre of the turret at the back was the large and effective nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare air filtration system made by Westair Dynamics. Mounted externally, the unit was easy to access making replacement and maintenance easier and consisted of a multi-stage high-efficiency filtration process and worked to create an overpressure inside the tank which served not only to keep gases out of the tank but also to evacuate fumes from the weapons.

The hull used heavy sections of Chobham across the front and sides with the driver sat recessed within the armour at the centre-front of the tank. Spaced armour covered most of the upper sections of the hull and all this combined to make the Challenger 1 one of the best protected tanks of the era.

Tracks and Suspension

The tracks and suspension for this vehicle were identical to those on the Challenger 1, with 6 large road wheels, each on a swing arm. Each wheel had a rubber tyre and ran on steel tracks fitted with removable rubber pads. The suspension was an improvement over the torsion bars of the Valiant and consisted of hydropneumatic units.


Power for the vehicle was provided by the Rolls Royce CV12 26-litre diesel engine located in the rear of the hull. Producing 1,200 hp and delivering it through a David Brown TN37 automatic transmission with 4 forward and 3 reverse gears. As the complete Challenger 1, the vehicle had a top speed of 56 km/h and with the new turret would be around the same weight so likely a very similar performance as well.

The Rival and the Name

At this time, around 1983, Vickers Defence systems was a direct rival to the Royal Ordnance Factory Leeds which was producing the Challenger 1 MBT. The Challenger 1 was just entering service with the British Army as the replacement for the Chieftain. Both the Valiant and Challenger 1 had already been rivals during British Army trials in 1982 and, despite more capable the fire control system of the Valiant, the Challenger had won out. Vickers were left needing a new foreign market for the tank and a new hull. Asking for a joint partnership with ROF Leeds to use the Challenger 1 hull when ROF already had the Challenger in production and were seeking overseas orders was simply not viable and, understandably, the project ended before it even began. When the solution appeared in the form of the Leopard 2 hull being made available from the German firm of Krauss-Maffei, the turret found a new lease of life as the Mk.7/2, implying that Mk.7 was just to be the original Valiant turret/Challenger hull combo or that Mk.7 was the general ‘fit the Valiant turret onto an MBT platform’ project name.

Vickers Mk.7/2 outside the Vickers Scotswood Road plant, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. In the background is Scotswood Bridge. The unusual angular building just to the left of the image is the turret testing building. Source: Vickers

Given that when the Mk.7/2 was unveiled, it was identified as the Mk.7, it is logical to assume the latter and that the ‘2’ was added retrospectively.

It is with some irony perhaps that in Egypt, in 1985, the Mk.7/2 was tested against the rival Challenger 1 and the fire control system once more proved itself to be superior to that of the Challenger 1, which was suffering from issues with firing on the move and engagement speed.

As it turned out, the Egyptians bought neither the Mk.7/2 nor the Challenger 1, and less than a year later Vickers Defence Systems bought the ROF Leeds plant and with it the rights to Challenger 1 and was awarded contracts for the Challenger-based Armoured Repair and Recovery Vehicle (C.A.R.R.V.).

Vickers Mk.7/2 (labeled just as the Mk.7) combining the Vickers Universal Turret with 120 mm gun options and the proven German Leopard 2 hull. This is an early image of the turret as the smoke grenade launchers are still on the turret cheeks. They were later moved to the rear sides of the turret. Note the VFM Mk.5 in the background. Source: Unknown

At the same time, Vickers also acquired tank-design authority from Royal Armament Research and Development (RARDE) at Chertsey. Vickers, by 1986, therefore had all of the cards with the exception of the superior turret from the Valiant – that was repackaged and sold off to Brazil for their EE-01 Osorio. Instead of simply trying to get the British Ministry of Defence to replace Challenger 1 turrets with the Valiant Universal Turret as envisaged in 1984, Vickers had other plans.


In 1986, just a year after taking over ROF Leeds, Vickers submitted a completely unsolicited plan to the MOD for a new tank to replace the Challenger 1. At a time when the Challenger 1 was brand new in service, this was certainly a bold move. Development of the Challenger 2 was to start thereafter and a working prototype was ready by the end of 1989. The Challenger 2 was a completely new tank despite sharing a name and general shape with the Challenger 1 and built-in much of the preceding years’ worth of knowledge gained by Vickers. Development of the Challenger 2 finally gave Vickers the Chobham-armored tank they had wanted and started nearly a decade earlier.

Resolving the key problems with the Challenger 1, the Challenger 2 more than anything else perhaps best illustrates the potential Vickers had offered way back with the Valiant but which had been lost. The Valiant turret with the Challenger 1 hull would have resolved the fire control issues with the Challenger but it did not really resolve the mobility problem. The Mk.7/2 on the other hand, resolved the mobility problem but was stymied by the fact that the German government limited exports of the Leopard 2 tank hull. Having suggested using the Valiant turret on the Challenger 1 and being rejected, Vickers had simply moved on to a design to replace the Challenger so that, when they took over control, changing the turret on the old hull would not suffice. Instead, the new tank would improve on the old one in all areas.

The Challenger 1-based Vickers Mark 7 mated the turret of the Vickers Mark 4 with the new hull. Illustration by Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin


Crew 4 (driver, gunner, loader, commander)
Propulsion  Rolls Royce CV12 26-litre diesel engine producing 1,200 hp
Speed  56 km/h (road)
Range/consumption 190 km (118 mi)
Armament L11A5 120 mm rifled main gun, coaxial 7.62 mm or 12.7 mm machine gun, roof-mounted remote-control 7.62 mm or 12.7 mm machine gun. Rheinmetall 120 mm smoothbore.
Armor Welded steel and Chobham
Suspension Hydropneumatic
Production None built


WW2 British Tactics

Operation Sentry – The First Centurion Trials 1945

Nation Flag IconUnited Kingdom (1945) 6 tanks used in testing

New tanks need to be designed, tested, and deployed carefully. Even with the pressures of war taken into account, the process should be methodical to ensure that mechanically reliable vehicles with good fighting characteristics and survivability get to the front line. The United Kingdom, in particular, had by 1945, suffered terribly economically, industrially, and with the bombing of its civilians during World War 2. This, combined with the need to produce a large number of tanks to field against the Germans and their allies, had all contrived to hinder the design and production of new tanks. In particular, by 1943, there was a desire to have a good cruiser tank, well protected and fielding the excellent 17 pounder gun. The much-delayed project was finally ready by 1944 and passed initial domestic trials. However, this new vehicle, the A.41 ‘Centurion’ could also be sent to mainland Europe for active trials in a war zone. The object of these first foreign Centurion trials was, therefore, to make use of the considerable battle experience of crews available in British forces in Europe and to conduct real-world trials under as near to combat conditions as possible.

The A.41 Cruiser Tank ‘Centurion’ had started life in October 1943 with a requirement for a 45-ton tank with a 650 horsepower engine, well sloped frontal armor, and carrying the new and powerful 17 pounder gun. Effectively, this would create a vehicle at least equal to the German Panther tank. When this tank was finally ready, the war in Europe was all but over. With some fighting still taking place there, it became a rush to get this brand new tank to Germany perhaps in the hope of some action. Even if it could not, the tank would be operationally deployed and the experience gained in a war zone would be invaluable in improving it. What this tank became was perhaps the finest tank ever made – the British Centurion, a tank in service for decades after the war, with hundreds of variants seeing combat around the globe.


It was not until February 1944 that the final specifications for what the as-yet-unnamed A.41 Heavy Cruiser Tank (it would not be known as ‘Centurion’ until later – at this time, the name ‘Centurion’ was still being touted for the A.30 – the tank which would be known as ‘Challenger’) would look like. With those requirements set, it was planned to produce 20 pre-production prototypes in order to conduct evaluation trials.

In May 1944, the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps (D.R.A.C.) amended the order for 20 of this first pattern of A.41, so that small features could be evaluated. These included the choice between a 20 mm Polsten cannon and 7.92 mm BESA as a turret machine gun, or even a 77 mm gun (as fitted to the A.34 Comet), and a rear escape hatch vs rear facing BESA machine gun.

The first A.41 prototype, ‘P1’, armed with the excellent 17 pounder gun and a 20 mm Polsten cannon fitted in a separate mount on the left of the unusually shaped turret.
Source: Pinterest

Technical Details A.41 P Series

The requirement for well-sloped frontal armor also meant that the idea of the vertical driver’s plate on the front of the tank, so recognizable on British tanks from the A.22 Churchill to A.34 Comet, was gone. This had been kept partially to make sure a hull-mounted machine gun could be retained for the tanks, but with only a single crew member in the hull and this single sloping front plate, this hull machine gun was finally removed.

A single large front sloping plate on the A.41 would make it look more like the German Panther, with the exception that, whilst that German tank had 80 mm or more of armor on the glacis, this A.41 had just 2.25” (57 mm) across the glacis and nose plate. Whilst this may seem like a problem, it is perhaps noteworthy that, although the Panther had more armor than the A.41, it would still be easy to penetrate by the 17 pdr. at any normal combat ranges, just as the A.41s would be vulnerable to the 7.5 cm KwK 42 gun of the Panther in return. However, production A.41 ‘Centurions’ would adopt a thicker glacis to more closely resemble the Panther.

The suspension was in the form of 6 doubled rubber-tired bogie wheels on each side, with the return of the 20” wide (508 mm) wide, 5.5” (140 mm) pitch track supported by rollers. The 108 links for the track on each side of the tank were made from cast manganese steel and were not fitted with rubber pads. The track and suspension were also usually hidden under a 6 mm thick ‘bazooka plate’ running the full length of the suspension. Each bogie was provided with a Newton-Bennett shock absorber and a coil spring and a hydraulic damper.

Powered by the Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.4A petrol engine delivering 635 hp at 2,550 rpm, it had a power to weight ratio of 13.7 bhp/ton (Imperial), which was only a problem in terms of fuel consumption. The 120 gallon (545.5 liters) petrol tank was only sufficient for 90 miles (145 km) of travel on a road. This meant the A.41 consumed some 1.3 gallons (6.1 liters) of petrol per mile (3.8 liters of petrol per km).

The 7-speed (5 forward and 2 reverse) Merritt-Brown Z51 gearbox combined with Girling brakes allowed for the steering of the tank under what was known as a ‘controlled-differential’ system. This was the preferred solution for a tank transmission, but it was decided to also try the Synchromesh Self-Shifting (SSS) system as well. Known as the Sinclair-Meadows Powerflow SSS system, this was a 7-speed (4 forward and 3 reverse) automatic gear change system by the Hydraulic Coupling and Engineering Company. This was an advanced and complex gearing system that had been experimented with during the war perhaps most famously on the TOG tank program. It offered the enormous advantage of allowing for a smooth transition from forward to reverse motion and vice versa via a fluid fly-wheel clutch.

On the A.41, the SSS system allowed for the tank to reverse at speeds of up to 14 mph (22.5 km/h), but only one A.41 was ever fitted with this system and was designated A.41S. The system was eventually abandoned after a series of minor problems and unpopular reports on it from the crews, for whom it was too different from what they were used to. The Merritt-Brown Z51 would eventually be the winning system from these trials.

Domestic Trials

Early domestic trials were, by all accounts, a pleasant change from many tanks during the war, where problems followed problems. The first automotive trials had actually taken place in September 1944 using that ‘soft-boat’ (the term for a non-armored steel test hull). Then, the only particular problem observed was excessive tracking to one side, which caused a lot of undue brake wear. There were no fundamental problems with the design and it immediately received a green light for the production of prototypes which were to start in January 1945. However, with every possible effort being pushed towards the D-Day landings (Operation Overlord) set for summer 1944, the production of A.41 could not start straight away. It would not actually be until April 1945 that the first prototype A.41, now designated as a ‘Heavy Cruiser’, was actually finished at Woolwich Arsenal. This first vehicle was delivered to the Fighting Vehicle Proving Establishment (F.V.P.E.) at Chertsey, Surrey, and immediately started a series of automotive trials. It was followed shortly thereafter for trials at Chertsey by the next two vehicles. The story for all three was the same – they were deemed excellent.

Pilot vehicle number 1 blew through its tests, covering over 1,055 miles (1,698 km) with 467 miles (752 km) of those off-road. Reaching a top speed of 23.7 mph (38 km), this brand new 45.5 ton (46.2 tonnes) tank was an impressive vehicle. By the end of May 1945, a 4th pilot vehicle arrived and this was sent for gunnery trials at Lulworth and this too went very well. In fact, by this time, the only notable criticism of any note was that the 20 round forward ammunition bin needed to be modified slightly.

To Europe

With domestic trials proceeding perhaps better than could have been expected and with the war going well, it was decided to send them to the front in Europe for evaluation by combat units. The plan for this evaluation was ‘Operation Sentry’ and had actually been proposed even before the first domestic trials had even taken place, such was the confidence in this vehicle. With such excellent initial results, there was no reason not to go ahead with it.

The first Centurion prototype with the powerful 17 pounder gun as the main armament and the distinctive mounting of a 20 mm Polsten cannon as the secondary armament next to it. Note that this turret is only made of mild steel and not rated as armor, as denoted by the small triangle in the middle of the left side of the turret.
Source: IWM

Of the 20 of this pre-production batch of A.41s ordered, 6 of them were to go on Operation Sentry. Three would be selected from Woolwich Arsenal (Royal Ordnance Factory, Woolwich), specifically P.3, P.9, and P.11. Three more would come from those produced by Royal Ordnance at Nottingham, specifically P.4, P.6, and P8.

Originally, it had been desired to test them with crews drawn from the Grenadier, Coldstream, Welsh, and Irish Guards regiments, so that they could be put into combat against the remaining elements of the German Wehrmacht. However, the remaining German military forces in northwest Germany, Denmark, and Holland surrendered to the British on 4th May, followed on the 7th by the signing of a full formal surrender of all remaining German forces to come into force the next day.

The war in Europe, therefore, came to an official end on 8th May 1945 with the surrender of all German forces to the Allies, although small pockets of forces remained to be collected. For all intents and purposes, the War in Europe was over and Germany had been utterly defeated. For the British, this had marked the culmination of a long and hard-fought war that had started nearly 6 years earlier and virtually bankrupted the Empire. It also marked the end of any prospect of getting the new A.41 into combat against the Germans.

There was, however, still a substantial number of vehicles and men in Europe, and all of the paraphernalia and restrictions of an active war zone. Thus, with the basics of the tank proven solid, these six tanks were quickly assigned to crews from 5th Battalion Inniskilling Dragoon Guards (5 I.D.G.) and 5th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment (5 R.T.R.), all part of the Guards Armoured Division. These were experienced units. 5 I.D.G., for example, had been in action in Europe since July 1944, fighting through France (Liseieux, 23rd August 1944), Belgium (Ghent, 5th September 1944), and into Germany (Rhine crossing, 25th March 1945) reaching Hamburg by May 1945. Trials would be split with 5.I.D.G., operating the tanks from 31st May to 11th June and then taken over by 5.R.T.R. from 12th June to 23rd June.

These crews trained on the tanks in the UK, having been brought back from the European Theater of Operations (ETO) specifically to do so. These were combat-experienced crews and they would be supported by personnel from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (R.E.M.E.) who had been assigned to and working at the F.V.P.E. The entire test and evaluation team was then deployed to Germany as part of the 7th Armoured Division.

Note the folded-down driver’s windscreen on the glacis and the unusual configuration of the headlamps, with one above the other vertically on the center-line of the glacis.
Source: Imperial War Museum
The clean lines of the A.41 Centurion belied its power as a tank and it was, without a doubt, the finest British tank produced during WW2.
Source: Pinterest
The turret as used on the A.41 during these trials featured a large front casting, with the distinctive hollow chin at the front to prevent jamming due to a shell strike on that area. The rest of the turret was made from welded steel plates and the front casting was then welded to them. Traversable electrically (Lucas) or by handwheel, and using a 74” (1,880 mm) ring, this turret allowed for 20 degrees of vertical gun movement and 12 degrees of gun depression.
Source: Dunstan


The six Centurion tanks were collected from Lulworth at noon on 13th May 1945 and immediately set off for the port of Southampton. They arrived at No. 20 Transit Camp in the evening. The next morning, they were embarked on Landing Craft Tank (L.C.T.) 798 and 1035 commanded by Lieutenant. C. D. Mitchell and Sub Lieutenant M. F. Bowe, respectively.

On Tuesday, 15th May, the L.C.T.s set sail from Southampton, but stopped overnight at Newhaven and Deal before arriving at Ostend and then finally Antwerp on the evening of the 18th. Disembarking on the 19th, they underwent two days of inspections, including final drive checks on vehicle P.11 before a road march to Nijmegen, a distance of 142 km.

By the 23rd, when they stopped overnight at the town of Brunen (77 km from Nijmegen), the tanks had covered 224 miles on the continent and the road march continued despite the wet weather, with overnight stops at Osnabruck on the 24th and Brentwede on the 25th. They remained there for two days until, on the 28th, the rain finally relented and they set off once more. This time, the drive took them to Hollendstedt, a distance of 80 miles (129 km), where again they stopped for two days. Finally, on the 30th, they left Hollendstedt and did a single 84 mile (135 km) road march to Gribbohn, arriving in the evening. During this transit from the UK and the road march through Holland, just two problems had occurred and both were gearbox failures. The first had taken place before the tanks had even started off at Lulworth and was likely a problem of manufacture. The second, over 700 miles (1,127 km) later, was just 40 miles (64.4 km) outside Hamburg. Other than that, maintenance had been straightforward, apart from a single quill shaft on an auxiliary engine failing. Nonetheless, all of the faults for all of the tanks were carefully logged.

Having arrived safely with little problems, the vehicles underwent their unit trials, followed, between 27th June and 14th July, by live-firing trials at the ranges at Lommel, Belgium. Other trials were then carried out, with the tanks simulating combat attacks and tactical movement – all of which went well.

One of the first batch of prototype Centurions, probably P1. The turret, seen without stowage boxes, can be seen to have very simple and clean lines. The text on the upper rear of the right side skirting plates is simply stating that anti-freeze had been added to the tank’s cooling system. Note the outline of a circle on the back of the turret, where a mounting for a rear-facing BESA machine gun was proposed and thankfully later abandoned.
Source: Dunstan via IWM

Centurion P.3 (W.D. Index Number T.352412) showing its 20 mm Polsten cannon and a stowage box fitted to the back of the turret.
Source: Pinterest
The cast front of the original turret is more apparent when viewed from the right. This is vehicle P.3. Source: Pinterest

A.41 ‘Centurion’ P.8. (W.D. Index Number T352415) with a large box-type structure fitted to the front left of the turret. This was a prototype of a light system and was tested on this vehicle after Operation Sentry. Note the pair of vertically arranged headlamps in the center of the glacis.
Source: Pinterest


Valuable experience with this new tank had been obtained in a relatively short time. A summary of the various faults, whether major or minor, was logged. From this and from discussion within the D.T.D., amendments to the A.41 design would be made.

The gearbox failures were perhaps surprising only in that they were so irregular and uncommon. A lot of previous problems during the war with tanks had been centered around gearbox trouble and yet this new transmission proved itself to have learned those lessons. The design had indeed taken knowledge from the Z51 Merritt-Brown unit which had been used in the Cromwell and Comet. The change was centered around adding a differential lock to the 7-speed (5 forward and 2 reverse) speed box, as this would help the driver to control one track over another in the event of becoming bogged down on soft ground.

On top of this change, a dry oil sump was fitted with oil injection for the gears, which helped both lubricate and cool the gears. A new double reduction system was part of the transmission and this was known as the Z51. The new gearbox was efficient and greatly improved the gear ratios in use to produce the power required at the sprockets. With the high-speed reverse gear added later to improve the design yet further, the nomenclature of the Z51-type box was now ‘Z51R’ (R for high-speed Reverse).

View into the engine compartment of the A.41, showing the Merritt-Brown Z51R transmission.
Source: Dunstan
A.41 Centurion P.11 (W.D. Index Number T.352417) during firing trials with the 17 pdr. Gun. Note that the turret rear has stowage boxes and the vague circle outline on the turret rear is now a hatch ideal for loading ammunition or for maintenance of the gun.
Source: Pinterest

The 7.92 mm BESA, venerable as its service had been, was requested to be replaced with the .30 caliber Browning machine gun. This was more reliable and another machine gun of the same type was requested for the commander on his cupola. All ideas of the somewhat impractical and wasteful use of a rear-facing BESA in the turret back were gone too.

The Polsten cannon idea had been to provide immediate firepower to destroy enemy anti-tank guns, where a machine gun was not powerful enough, and it was indeed a potent weapon in its own right. The real problem was that it simply took up too much space and a machine gun, like the BESA or the .30 caliber Browning, was simpler and allowed more space for the crew in the turret. Of the 6 tanks in Operation Sentry, only one had been fitted with the BESA and yet this was the preferred mounting – albeit replaced with the Browning.

The addition of the Morris 8 hp 3 kW auxiliary generator was a fine idea, as it would allow the tank to charge its radio batteries and gun control equipment even without the main engine turned on. However, it was felt that it would become unreliable over time and a new system would be needed. Nonetheless, the idea of having its own generator unit was novel and extremely valuable and would be kept.

“Generally, the CENTURION has been well received, and great interest is being taken in the trial”. AFV Technical Report No.26, June 1945

To improve off-road performance and to handle the slightly heavier weight of the vehicle, the prototype 20” (508 mm) wide tracks were changed to 24” (610 mm) when the A.41 entered production as the A.41*. Other modifications would include the hull stowage bin, but also the gun cradle, towing cable assemblies, and the final drive housings. Overall, these were minor amendments to the tank which had shown itself to be both fundamentally sound as a tank design, as well as being popular with the crews.

Like all good tests and trials, areas for improvement had been identified. There had been no opportunity for these tanks to see any actual combat or fire their guns in anger, but that was not the important thing. With a live test of the A.41 in a war zone and all of the difficulties which that entails in terms of the limitations on transport and supplies, the A.41 proved itself robust and reliable.

This perhaps was the single most important element which had often been found to be lacking on earlier British tanks. Produced under the extreme hardships of a wartime economy with limitations of materials and labor, and whilst often enduring German bombing, the nation’s economy had taken a serious beating. Yet, despite all of this, the British had managed to produce a tank to replace a fleet that still consisted of things like the A.24 Cromwell, A.30 Challenger, A.22 Churchills, and a plethora of M4 Shermans.

Trial End

With the trials over and the 6 Centurions returned to Great Britain via Calais in July, the results were discussed by the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps (D.R.A.C.) Advisory Committee meetings on 22nd August 1945. The theatre trials had been a resounding success and there was little hesitation in ordering 100 of the new tanks (very slightly modified) as A.41* of the initial batch of an order for 800 such tanks. The A.41, therefore was simply the prototype Centurion and it was the improved A.41* model which became the Centurion Mk.1. The remainder of the batch (700), was improved yet further as the A.41A and appeared as the Centurion Mk.2.

It was hard not to be impressed by the reliable and rugged Centurion. The Operation Sentry trials covered over 2,300 miles (3,701 km) for all six tanks with 250 miles (402 km) off-road and only minor problems were encountered. The new tanks were proudly shown off to other units within the 21st Army Group, following the long British Army tradition of a unit showing off their shiny new equipment to units that did not have it.

Centurion P.6 (T.352414) going over soft ground during trials in Operation Sentry, 1945.
Source: The Tank Museum.
One of the prototype A.41’s with 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, 1945. Note the port on the left of the turret, often referred to as a loading port but officially as a ‘revolver’ port, is open – likely for ventilation during this moment of relaxation.
Source: The Tank Museum, Bovington
A.41* Centurion Mk.I W.D. Index No. T.351701 – This is the second vehicle of that first batch of 100 A.41* tanks made by Royal Ordnance Factory Woolwich. Note that the 7.92 mm BESA has not yet been installed.
Source: Dunstan via IWM

The first 100 of those A.41A Centurions, later identified as Mk.2 tanks, would carry the same 17 pounder gun as before and then the rest (600 vehicles) were to carry a newer and even more powerful gun – the 20 pounder. The British had, by 1945, become masters of the gun, and this new 83.5 mm piece was a substantial step up in tank firepower beyond the 17 pounder. The big issue was that a new and larger gun beyond the 17 pdr., like the 32 pounder or this 20 pounder (originally a ‘21 pounder’ design), required a new fully cast turret to take it (the 95 mm Close Support (C.S.) gun version could be fitted to either turret).

Probably the biggest change from these P series vehicles to the first production vehicles would be the frontal armor. The 2.25” (57 mm) glacis was seen as being inadequate and this was increased to 3” (76 mm) for production vehicles, even though this thickness change is virtually imperceptible from the outside.

Production of the A.41 ‘Centurion’ would start in November 1945 from that August 1945 order, with serial production proper starting in 1946. Deliveries of that new tank started with the 6th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment in February 1946. This tank, the culmination of the British lessons of WW2, would go on to serve in dozens of armies over the following decades, and seeing combat all over the world. In the Centurion, and as proven by its trials on Operation Sentry, the British truly had produced one of the greatest tanks of all time, simple, rugged, reliable, and adaptable.


Not many Mk.1 or even Mk. 2 Centurions survive today and even fewer of this first trials batch, just one in fact. Today, only P.9 survives as a pre-series Centurion. P.9 is preserved in The Tank Museum collection, Bovington, UK.

Centurion P.9., a Woolwich Arsenal-built tank, Index No. T352416, at The Tank Museum Bovington. Note that the driver’s windscreen is in the erect position.
Source: Flikr
A Centurion Mark I, similar to the ones that saw testing during Operation Sentry.

A.41 P-Series specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 25’ 2” long, 29’ 7” long over gun, 11’ 0.75” wide, 9’ 2.75” high
Total Weight 46.9 tonnes
Crew 4 (Driver, Commander, Gunner, Loader)
Gun Elevation Range +20 to -12 degrees
Speed 23 mph/h
Range 90 miles
Engine Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.4A petrol 635 bhp at 2,550 rpm
Radio No.38 AFV set, No.19 set, Infantry telephone
Fuel 120 gallons (545.5 liters)
Ground Clearance 20 inches
Trench Crossing 11´
Turret 360-degree rotation
Step 3’
Ford 4’ 9”
Armament 7 pdr., 7.92 mm BESA / 20 mm Polsten cannon, .303” Bren machine gun, 2” smoke bombs, multi-barrel smoke discharger
Armor Hull Glacis: 57 mm @ 55 deg., Nose: 57 mm @ 45 deg., Sides: 51 mm @ 12 deg., Rear: 38 mm @ 7 deg., Floor: 17 mm, Roof: 29 mm (hull front) 16 mm (centre), 14 mm (rear), Turret Mantlet: 127 mm, Turret Front: 127 mm, Turret Sides: 76 mm @ 10 deg., Turret Rear: 76 mm @ 10 deg., Turret Roof: 25 mm @ 78 deg. (front), 25 mm @ 90 deg. (centre), 25 mm @ 78 deg. (rear).
Total Production 6


Report 38/TECH L1A/2/5, 21st Army Group British Liberation Army, AFV Technical Report No.26, June 1945
War Office Doc. 291. ‘Tank Data’
Dunstan, S. (2003). Centurion Universal Tank 1943 – 2003. Osprey New Vanguard. Osprey Publishing UK.
Dunstan, S. (2020). British Battle Tanks 1946-2016. Osprey Publishing, UK
Dunstan, S. (1980). Centurion. Ian Allen Publishing, UK
Ware, P. (2012). Images of War Special: The Centurion Tank. Pen and Sword Military, UK

WW2 British Tactics

British Tank Losses March to May 1945: The War in North West Europe

Nation Flag IconUnited Kingdom Tank Losses March to May 1945

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Operations Veritable, Blockbuster, and Grenade marked the breakout from Holland for Allied forces during February and March 1945. These were followed by a strong push across the border into Germany, bitter fighting in the Reichswald forest and then the crossing of the Rhine (Operation Plunder). Between the time of the crossing of the Rhine on 24th March 1945, and the end of the war in North West Europe on 5th May 1945, 21st Army Group suffered a total of 769 men killed and injured across 19 British Armoured Regiments, along with the loss of 333 Armored Fighting Vehicles.

Those 333 AFVs were primarily Cruiser tanks, such as the A.27 Cromwell, A.34 Comet, and A.30 Challenger. In addition, some units fighting in the area were equipped with A.22 Churchill tanks and the Canadian units were equipped with M4 Sherman tanks. In 1946, as a part of an ongoing effort to improve both the habitability and survivability of tanks, the Royal Army Medical School, on behalf of the Medical Research Commission (M.R.C.), produced a short series of analytical reports looking at the casualties and, in particular, at the causes of them. As the majority of actions led to capturing the ground being fought over, the British examiners, Captain H. Wright and Captain R. Harkness, managed to examine 65% of all of the vehicles lost to enemy action.

A close look at these reports provides a unique and interesting insight into the nature of tank warfare and provides clues into the design and operational use of armored fighting vehicles.

‘Melville’ pontoon bridge carries Allied traffic across the Rhine at Emmerich. After the end of March 1945, with the battle now in Germany proper, the resistance was desperate and bitter. Source: Stacey

The Units

The armored units deployed by the British which formed part of the assessment of casualties came from a number of divisions, such as the 11th Armoured Division. That division consisted of the 15th/19th Hussars, 23rd Hussars, 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, which were equipped with A.34 Comet Tanks. The 7th Armoured Division consisted of the 8th Hussars, 1st and 5th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment and 5th Battalion Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, which were equipped with A.27 Cromwell tanks.

Within the 11th Armoured Division was also the Guards Armoured Division, which consisted of 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards, equipped with A.27 Cromwells, and 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards, and 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, all equipped with M4 Sherman tanks. There was also the 4th Armoured Brigade, consisting of the Royal Scots Greys, 3rd/4th County of London Yeomanry, and 44th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment and these units were equipped with M4 Sherman tanks. Finally, there was 8th Armoured Brigade, consisting of 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, 13th/18th Hussars, Nottingham and Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, and the Staffordshire Yeomanry, all of whom were equipped with M4 Sherman tanks.

75 mm and 17 pdr armed M4 Shermans of the 4th Armoured Brigade, February 1945. These vehicles belong to the Royal Scots Greys and are pictured waiting for the advance on Goch during Operation Veritable. These units and these tanks were to continue in action all the way across the Rhine through spring 1945. Source: IWM
The most modern tank in serial production and available to the British in 1945 was the A.34 Comet mounting a 77 mm gun. Pictured at the end of March 1945, this vehicle, called ‘Crusader’, belonging 2nd Battalion Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, moves through the wreckage of a German town. Source: IWM


In analyzing the data, the authors started by taking total losses for tanks of all types and looking for the various causes of damage and loss (Table 1). Unsurprisingly, some units with a majority of M4 Sherman tanks, the M4 Sherman suffered the greatest percentage of the losses. This was closely followed by the A.27 Cromwell and A.34 Comet tanks (Table 2). It is very clear from the results presented in Table 1 that High Explosive (H.E.) shells, such as from artillery, amounted to just 3% of total losses and were therefore a statistically insignificant source of tank loss. By far and away the greatest cause of losses to all tanks was from penetrations of the armor by enemy Armor Piercing (A.P.) ammunition (Table 3).

An A.27 Cromwell tank (centre) belonging to the 5th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Dragoon takes position outside the church in the German town of Weseke, 29th March 1945. It is supported by Ram Kangaroo APCs belonging to the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry. Source: IWM


On the face of it, the identification of the type of mine involved in an incident with a tank is complicated by the total destruction of the device. The method used in the study was to take data from other mines located and cleared in the area to identify the most likely source of the mine encountered by the tank (Table 4). This was easy where a tank struck a mine and all that was found in the vicinity were other Riegel R.43 bar mines. That would make it very likely the culprit was one of that type. In a mixed minefield of Tellermines and Riegels, all that could be determined was that it was likely to be one of those two types. Many times, the paucity of other mines located or the lack of records as to which mine was found meant that no mine could reasonably be identified as the culprit encountered by the tank. On one occasion, an M4 Sherman tank was utterly destroyed by a large H.E. charge which had been buried and detonated under the vehicle. The crew were all killed and, whilst the incident was recorded, no data from that particular blast was included within the analysis, as it was a one-off and outlier as far as the study was concerned.

The Riegel R.43 (Sprengriegel R./Mi.43) was a bar mine – a long rectangular casing weighing 9.3 kg and containing 4 kg of TNT. A tank driving over the casing at any point would cause it to compress on the detonator and explode. The Teller-type mines, on the other hand, were cylindrical mines weighing just over 9 kg and holding around 5.5 kg of TNT. Although the Tellermines held more explosive, the cylinder was an inefficient shape, measuring just 31.8 cm in diameter (for the Tellermine T.Mi.35), whereas the Riegl bar mine was 80 cm long. This meant that a Riegel mine, once laid, had a greater chance of being under the track of a tank, although the effect once detonated was effectively the same.

Riegel R.43 bar mine. Source Wiki
Tellermine T.Mi.42. The Teller-type mines came in a variety of materials and variations but the shape and effect remained little changed. Source: Shipmodels.Info

Each of these types of mines and variants had multiple options for detonation. These included connecting mines together so that, when one was triggered, it could set off more mines, or by connecting them to trip lines, anti-handling devices, and stakes which, when touched by a tank, would trip the fuse and trigger the mine. However, none of those situations seem to have been encountered by the tanks of the 21st Army Group. An analysis of the position of detonation of mines by tanks clearly showed they were the simple track-crushing-mine-and-triggering-them type of incidents rather than a specific booby trap to cause the mine to go off under the belly (Table 5). The casualties resulting from these mine encounters were therefore considerably lower than could be expected from a mine going off directly under the hull (Table 6). Thus, efforts to improve mine protection to counter that type of explosion were not warranted.

The cause of casualties to tank crews in relation to mine encounters was dependent on whether or not the floor plates of the tank were buckled, allowing the explosive blast to enter the crew space and injure the occupants. In this regard, the important considerations for the floor plates were the method of manufacturing, their thickness, and the height of the floor plates from the ground. The construction of the floor plates of the A.27 Cromwell and A.30 Challenger was effectively identical and, therefore, those vehicle’s encounters were grouped together. Looking at the data, the low ground clearance and relatively thin floor plates of the A.27 Cromwell show that it was substantially more at risk from damage by a mine blast than the M4 Sherman. The M4 Sherman tank, in fact, recorded no significant casualties from landmines at all, even in the situation where one vehicle managed to detonate two mines while driving at high speed. Overall, it was concluded by the authors that, whilst the M4 Sherman was indeed better protected against land mines than the A.27 Cromwell, overall, these were simply not a significantly important source of casualties. It may also be considered that, at this time in the war, the mines being laid by the Germans were ad-hoc or not properly prepared. The mine threat – once considered so serious that a whole slew of anti-tank mine clearance devices was developed, was not so great as first thought. On the whole, the majority of mine encounters caused minor injuries, suspension damage and inconvenience for the unit rather than a way of depleting Allied strength in any significant numbers.

Vehicle Casualties

For crew men, the definition of a casualty was simply any member of the vehicle’s crew who was killed or wounded. For those wounded, only those evacuated for treatment were included. Men who were injured but remained in the unit were not included. Once tabulated, the primary cause of crew man losses was assessed as being the result of penetrations of the armor from enemy guns firing Armor Piercing (A.P.) projectiles (Table 3).

Having established that A.P. penetrations were the primary cause of loss and that Hollow Charge (H.C.) weapons like the Panzerfaust were the secondary one, it became important to consider where the tanks had been struck (Table 7), where the armor had withstood the enemy attack, and where the armor of the various tanks had failed (Tables 8a to 8e) and then to summarise those results (Table 9). This would provide useful data to inform future tank design and development in order to try and maximise protection for the tank and crew.

Sherman III W.D. No. 152104 belonging to 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. Hit numerous times, including several ineffective hits from Hollow Charge weapons on the front of the hull which failed to penetrate. A 75 mm A.P. round had pierced the front of the final drive, crippling the tank, and two rounds partially penetrated the machine gun housing on the hull and the glacis in front of the driver, respectively. At least 3 more 75 mm A.P. hits were received to the front left sprocket and three more on the hull front. One more 75 mm strike failed to penetrate the side of the tank and another the face of the turret. One H.C. penetration was received on the lower left side of the hull. No fire took place, although substantial internal damage was received. The crew escaped unhurt. Noteworthy is that this tank was carrying additional track links across the front, which were knocked off by the first 75 mm strikes, which were the ones which did not penetrate. The crew only bailed out after the third penetrating hit was received.

Sherman III W.D. No. 151168 belonging to 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. The tank was struck on top of the gun mantlet by an unidentified Armor Piercing shell, breaking off a section of it. The tank was unpenetrated and the crew were unhurt. The gun or vehicle firing this round was not identified.
Sherman V D.D. (Duplex Drive) W.D. No.232263 belonging to the Staffordshire Yeomanry. Struck and penetrated on the driver’s area by a 75 mm A.P. round fired from 1,000 yards. The shell penetrated and then struck the turret basket, damaging one of the supports. The crew then bailed out, all unhurt, and further hits were received. Another round penetrated the right hand side of the final drive, leaving a 90 mm wide hole and another penetrated and smashed the transmission. One more shell hit the left hand side suspension on the side, breaking a sprocket and bogie unit.

Sherman V DD (Duplex Drive) W.D. No. 232115 belonging to the Staffordshire Yeomanry. Struck by a 75 mm A.P. round at a range of 1,500 yards, the shell penetrated the rear applique armor, passed across the width of the tank and blew a jagged hole out of the other side as it exited. The tank caught fire instantly and the commander later died of wounds, the only fatality in the vehicle.

Sherman V D.D. W.D. No. 232512 belonging to the Staffordshire Yeomanry. The vehicle was knocked out by a 75 mm penetration fired from perhaps as much as 2,000 yards. The shell penetrated through the centre left hand side of the hull, behind the applique side armor. Leaving a 74 mm diameter hole, the shell smashed through the engine bulkhead and ruptured the petrol tank, causing a fire. Superficial wounds to the Operator’s right buttock and left ankle, but otherwise all the crew were uninjured.
Sherman V D.D. W.D. No. 232286 belonging to the Staffordshire Yeomanry struck from 700 yards by a 75 mm A.P. round fired from a German S.P. gun with the 7.5 cm PaK 40 gun. The shell penetrated the right sponson below the turret and ended up in the engine bulkhead, starting a fire which destroyed the tank. Not thought to have caused any injuries.
Sherman II W.D. No. 232266 belonging to the 3rd/4th City of London Yeomanry. Struck by a 75 mm A.P. shell fired from a self-propelled gun at a range of 800 yards. The round struck the top front of the turret, leaving a hole 75 mm wide and 90 mm high above the mantlet. Striking the interior of the roof, the round bounced down into the wireless, wrecking it and starting a minor fire which did not spread. The crew were all unhurt.

Sherman V W.D. No.147681 belonging to the 2nd Inniskilling Dragoons struck by a Hollow Charge at the base of the turret, leaving a 50 mm diameter hole, and by a 75 mm A.P. round (later identified as a 7.5 cm A.P.C.B.C. round from either a Pak. 40 or KwK. 40) on the hull side, below the left sponson. The H.C. caused only minor internal damage, but the penetrating 75 mm round left a hole 80 mm x 130 mm. No crew were injured and no fire resulted from either penetration. A third hit on the driver’s hatch left a mark only.

Sherman V W.D. No. 288593 belonging to the Nottingham and Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. Struck by a Hollow Charge fired from just 20 yards, the tank was penetrated on the top centre of the turret, leaving a 16 mm diameter hole. The jet travelled across the turret and struck the commander’s seat, starting a fire in the turret. The commander and operator were killed, the gunner was wounded, but the hull crew escaped unharmed.

Cromwell Mk.VII W.D. No. 121797 belonging to 8th Hussars struck at a range of 1,000 to 1,200 yards by an 88 mm A.P. round fired from a railway carriage mounted 88 mm gun. The round pierced the front visor plate on the hull, leaving a hole measuring 85 mm x 130 mm. The shell travelled through the compartment and penetrated the forward bulkhead, the turret ring, and then the engine bulkhead, exploding in the engine of the tank. The vehicle caught fire and was completely burnt out. The status of the crew was unknown.
Cromwell Mk.IV W.D. No. 188046 belonging to the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. Struck at a range of 200 to 300 yards by a 50 mm (maybe 47 mm) A.P. shell which clipped the roof, the round did little damage to the fan cowling but it did cause three periscopes on the roof to shatter. The commander and operator were both travelling with their heads out of their watches and were hit by shrapnel to the extent they had to be evacuated.
Cromwell Mk. IV W.D. No.188394 belonging to 15th/19th Hussars struck by an A.P. round, possibly 88 mm calibre, from an unknown range. The round passed through the front left corner of the visor plate, leaving a hole 110 mm in diameter but not penetrating. It did break off the co-driver’s hatch hinge, but there were no injuries.

A.34 Comet tank W.D. No.120498 belonging to the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. Struck from a range of 50 yards by a Hollow Charge projectile which left a 50 mm diameter hole in the front of the turret and caused minor injuries to the gunner and operator only.
A.34 Comet ‘Bucephalus’ (Alexander the Great’s famous horse) W.D. No.334983 belonging to the 23rd Hussars. Hit from a range of just 100 yards by a 75 mm A.P. round from a German S.P. gun. The round penetrated the top right corner of the driver’s compartment, followed by another penetrating through the front left of the nose plate of the tank. One final 75 mm penetration was recorded through the back of the turret. The driver sustained just superficial injuries to his wrist and the fire damage was not severe.

A.30 Challenger tank W.D. No. 272060 belonging to 8th Hussars. The tank was struck in the front of the turret by a Hollow Charge projectile leaving a 50 mm diameter hole in the armor. No fire was caused but the commander was killed and the gunner, operator, and loader were all wounded.

Stuart Light Tank W.D. No.287750 belonging to 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. The turret was struck in the upper right corner by a 75 mm A.P. round leaving an 80 mm wide entry hole (left). Passing through the turret, the round smashed out of the back (right) leaving a 90 mm wide exit hole. The vehicle was burnt out and the crew were unharmed, but this is believed to be due to exiting the vehicle for an unknown reason prior to being hit.

A simple clock-ray was then used to divide hits on a vehicle’s turret or hull into 8 sectors. Each sector was evenly sized, covering 45 degrees of arc, to complete a 360 degree damage assessment. Hits on the vehicles were then collated as either Armor Piercing (A.P.) or Hollow Charge (H.C.), regardless of whether they penetrated or not.

The clock-ray analysis method used.

The results shown in Table 10 clearly show that around 40% of all strikes from A.P. and H.C. weapons on the hull and 50% on strikes on the turret came from the front 45 degree sector, 22.5 degrees each side of the centre-line of the tank. In total, accounting for all strikes of any kind across this frontal arc (sector 1), this amounted to some 92 strikes out of a total of 241, 38.2% of all hits in this area. Expanding a look at the importance of focussing armor protection on a frontal arc can be done by including sectors 2 and 8 in this analysis. This would therefore cover the entire front aspect of the tank across both sides. Including sectors 2 and 8 to include hull and turret strikes by both types of weapon covers some 135 degrees, 67.5 degrees each side of the centre line of the tank. Hits in this area amounted to 155 hits, 64.3% of the total. Obviously, this leaves around a third of all hits (35.7%) accounted for across the remainder of the vehicle.

Looking purely at side hits square on (sectors 3 and 7), these accounted for 53 hits, 22% of all strikes. Using an expanded view of how the sides could be struck would include sectors 8, 6, 2, and 4. All together, the sides were exposed to fire and struck, even from oblique angles, to a total of 137 hits, 56.8% of the total.

From the rear, straight on (sector 5), just 12 hits were recorded, just 5% of the total. Even if this additional view of the vulnerability of the rear was taken into account and results from sectors 4 and 6 are added in, this would still only account for just 33 hits, 13.7% of the total. This expanded method of looking at the vehicle’s vulnerabilities was not done by the original authors, and it is easy to misunderstand how this may assist in viewing the areas commonly hit, as sectors get counted more than once and percentages count up to more than 100.

An example from the report of the hit-direction analysis done for each type of tank used. In this case, the hits across all Sherman V tanks are plotted in this plan view of the tank. The majority of hits are on the front of the vehicle.

What it does show, however, perhaps more clearly than simple tabulations of X number of hits in Sector Y, are that the front is more likely to be hit than the sides, but not by much, 64.3% compared to 56.8%, and that the rear is by far the least important for protection, with just 13.7% of hits.

Graphical representation of the number of hits from both A.P. and H.C. weapons by zone. Author

This was certainly not the limit of the hit-analysis by the authors of the report. In addition to knowing from what direction a tank was most likely to be hit in combat, something of use to future designers of such vehicles, the authors then looked at height. That is, the height from the ground on the tank where they were hit (Tables 11a to 11e) and then summarised (Table 12). The primary tanks concerned in the study, A.27 Cromwells and M4 Shermans, were different heights, with the M4 Sherman being the taller of the two (up to 2.97 m for the M4 Sherman vs 2.49 m for the A.27 Cromwell). Two hundred and forty tanks had been damaged by enemy Armor Piercing and Hollow Charge shells and had caused 326 men to be killed or wounded. This meant that the sample size was certainly large enough from which conclusions could be drawn.

Hit height analysis on the Cromwell (left) and Sheman V (right). The frequency of hits within a relatively small area in the centre of the turret face on the Cromwell and on the transmission housing and driver’s area on the Sherman V are particularly striking. Source: Author

Sherman II W.D. No. 233583 belonging to the 3rd/4th City of London Yeomanry. This tank was struck square in the centre of the glacis from a range of 900 yards by a 75 mm A.P. shell. The round tore through the armor, leaving a hole 75 mm wide by 130 mm high and destroying the driver’s right arm, which later had to be amputated. Vehicle caught fire and was abandoned. The rest of the crew were uninjured.
Sherman V D.D. W.D. No. 148113 belonging to the 44th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment struck from a range of 400 yards by an 88 mm A.P. round. The first round from the tank which fired the shot struck the turret but did not penetrate. A second shot struck the roof of the left sponson, leaving a ragged hole 100 mm in diameter and passed through the tank, lodging on the inside of the final drive on the co-driver’s side. All the crew got out of the tank unhurt, although it was completely burnt out.
Sherman V W.D. No. 147939 belonging to the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards. The vehicle was burnt out (engine bay remained unburnt) as a result of penetration by two Hollow Charge weapons. The first penetrated the right side wall above the bogie, leaving a 50 mm diameter hole, and the second was in the right side of the turret, leaving a 40 mm diameter hole. Likely after it had been abandoned, a shell of unknown calibre struck the turret side, smashing the railing for the Tulip rocket and then penetrating the side of the turret.

Cromwell Mk. VII W.D. No.121812 belonging to 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards. Struck from the front from 50 yards by a Panzerschrek firing a Hollow Charge, the round impacted the turret in the centre directly above the gun. The crew abandoned the vehicle unhurt. The vehicle was later found burnt out.
Cromwell Mk. IV W.D. No.188649 belonging to the 8th Hussars. Vehicle struck on the bottom left hand corner of the turret by a Hollow Charge projectile fired from 30 yards away. Penetration left a hole 90 mm wide on the exterior and 50 mm on the interior of the tank. The gunner suffered minor burns, no fire damage.

A.34 Comet W.D. No.335088 belonging to the 23rd Hussars hit by an 88 mm A.P. round from a Flak. 44 on a ground mount at a range of 200 yards. The round penetrated the lower front of the nose plate, leaving a 100 mm wide hole and causing a small fire. The driver, gunner, and co-driver were all killed and the operator wounded.
A.34 Comet W.D. No.3335175 belonging to the 15th/19th Hussars. The tank was hit on the right side of the turret by a hollow charge projectile leaving a 60 mm diameter hole. An unidentified A.P. round struck the mantlet but did not penetrate. The operator was killed by the H.C. penetration and the other crew, upon exiting, were hit by small arms fire, killing the commander, gunner, and driver. The co-driver was wounded

Distribution of hits from both A.P. and H.C. by height (in feet). This is across all tanks. The Sherman background is merely illustrative. Source: Author

The examination of the shell damage from A.P. rounds provided additional information for the survey, because the penetrations and scoops left holes of varying sizes in the armor. Those holes could, in some cases, be directly attributable to a specific calibre of shell. On occasion, the enemy shell could be located as well and, in others, the source of the shell was seen or later identified looking at the captured battlefield. In this way of analysis, the authors were able to accurately or somewhat accurately ascribe to penetrating hits nearly two thirds of all rounds which hit the tanks, whether they penetrated or not (table 13).

Knowing the casualties from the tanks and then using this penetration analysis allowed the authors to accurately ascribe the risk of becoming a casualty based on the area in which a tank was penetrated (table 14).

The conclusions were that penetrations through the front armor of the hull were the most likely to cause injuries, whether the result of A.P. or H.C., accounting for nearly a third of total casualties and 40% of casualties from a single A.P. penetration. The difference in the rate of casualties from hull and turret penetrations by A.P. is particularly striking.

Further to Table 13, where the guns firing A.P. rounds were identified, the authors were able to use evidence from the crews and wrecked vehicles for both sides to work out the ranges at which these A.P. rounds were being fired (table 14).

Of known hits, 85 of them for which the range could be accurately found, it was determined that 50.5 of them (59.4%) occurred at 800 yards (732 m) or less and 83.5% at 1,000 yards (914 m) or less.

Graph of combat ranges for hits by A.P. shells. (Note: 1 yard = 0.9144 metres). Source: Author

Having already identified that A.P. penetration was the primary cause of tank losses, the authors turned their attention to crew losses and the causes of them and this related directly to the penetrating agent. Table 16 shows that lethality was not even amongst the shells and that it was the larger, higher energy 88 mm shells which resulted in the most casualties. This assessment of the nature of the guns and their shells, combined with the combat ranges being encountered, meant that any consideration of improving the frontal protection of tanks, using the weight of armor to best advantage, had to take this into account (Table 17).

At best, the frontal protection on both A.27 Cromwell and M.4 Sherman was just around 100 mm, meaning that, at 500 yards (457 mm) from the front, both were penetrable by any of the commonly encountered German guns.

Worst still was that, at 500 yards (457 m), the evidence of combat showed that the chances of the German gunners missing their target was small, with survival chances for the crew halving every 6 seconds in a combat situation after the first round is fired. The implications of this were that a) the frontal armor had to be substantially improved on both tanks to make the armor invulnerable from that direction, and that b) the ability to deliver fire back at a target as fast as possible was of prime value.

The report went further than this too, and suggested that, as the majority of combat was forward or to the sides, all round traverse on a tank was not statistically a strict necessity. If, however, a tank could be made which was invulnerable to enemy fire from the front, even though it may have limited traverse, then the data supported that this vehicle would have substantial combat value (despite some limitations in supporting fire support for infantry) and improve survivability. In addition, as regarding potential future designs, the authors summarised this lesson as meaning that:

“if a vehicle of this type were designed in which the crew all worked from a sitting position, they could be protected from the front with a sheet of armor 7 feet [2.13 m] broad by 4 feet [1.22 m] high. Even if this were a foot thick, it would weigh only about 6 tons”.

In considering the effect of German guns, the combat ranges were generally relatively short and the 75 mm gun was also the cause of most tank losses, even though the 88 mm was substantially more injurious to the crew when it was encountered.

When these 88 mm rounds entered the vehicle, the fragments of armor and shell coming off, and the large round itself caused numerous injuries. Injuries were also caused further from the point of penetration than for a penetrating 75 mm shell. This was especially true of H.C. penetrations too, where injuries to the crew were tightly confined to the area near to the point of penetration. The primary cause of injury leading to death following penetration were wounds to the head or body (table 18). Non-lethal wounds were mostly to the limbs and head. With head injuries the most common amongst fatal injuries and one of the primary non-lethal injuries (table 19) the importance of head protection for tank crew was an obvious conclusion.

This analysis of fatal injuries by penetrative mechanism led into the second half of the study looking at crew casualties.

Crew Casualties

A vehicle casualty was defined for the purposes of the study as any A.F.V. hit by a weapon capable of causing major damage, which meant it would include anti-tank guns, landmines, etcetera, but not include small arms fire. Looking at tank crew losses in addition to the loss of the tanks themselves would provide insight into the relative dangers of the types of weapons to the men and to the mode of injury.

It had already been established that 34% (272) of all casualties were caused by single penetrations into the crew compartment and crews almost always immediately abandoned their tanks when it had been penetrated. It was noted that some even abandoned them when a penetration did not occur, as the follow up shot stood a high chance of doing so. It was also found that 3% (9) of all casualties were the result of penetrations into non-crew space, like the engine bay or final drive, and all were assessed to be the result of fires from the petrol igniting, although this was only recorded in Sherman tanks.

In one case, a 105 mm shell from a Flak 38 was recorded as having penetrated a Sherman in the side when it was exposed crossing a canal bridge. The round travelled through the crew space and blew out a 1’ (30 cm) square slab of armor from the opposite side as it passed right through both sides. The men inside were caught in a large and instant fire, burning all of them instantly. Only the driver and commander survived.

Just 9% (30) of the casualties were the result of non-penetrating hits. This was not due to any flaking of the armor on the inside face of the plates, but due to crews with body parts, like head or arms, exposed out of a hatch whilst driving.

A total of 371 men were wounded or killed, with 38% of those who were injured being killed (table 20). This would then enable the authors to assign casualties to particular tanks (table 21) to assess the relative risk and safety of each one (table 22).

The relative hazard is a simple measure to look at the chance of becoming killed, wounded, or burnt inside the tanks used. It does not take into account the combat action seen by a unit, the idea that a particular tank might be specifically targeted by the enemy or a variety of other factors. One notable example of these other factors was that the 5-man crew complement was not always carried in A.27 Cromwells due to the increased risk of mine-related injury. Likewise, the Challenger and Sherman with the 17 pdr. omitted this crew member too. What can be drawn from the results, however, is a general idea that, during this period, the Sherman was in general marginally safer to be a member of the crew than the A.27 Cromwell.

Particular care has to be drawn in judging the relative hazards posed of the crews of 75 mm-armed M4 Shermans compared to 17-pdr.-armed Shermans. Although the crew complement in the 17-pdr. vehicles was just 4, the relative hazard here shows effectively no difference to the 75 mm gun vehicle, which could be interpreted to say that the 17-pdr. gun tank was proportionally more hazardous to the crew. Whilst the study did go on to find that there was an increased risk of injury to crew members from a hull penetration, the lack of a co-driver, who would not generally have been injured from a turret-penetration, does not get to be counted in the survivability of the tank because he was not there. Thus, the authors took care to suggest caution when interpreting the figures.

Fire, in particular, was a major problem to be considered for vehicle and crew casualties, the cause of the fire, and the type of incident which led to the fire. It was then considered in terms of penetrations by A.P. as to where on the tank the penetration had taken place and the percentages of men burned as a result (Table 23) to establish whether or not there was a difference in casualty rates between penetrations of the hull and penetrations of the turret.

It is significant that the number of men who suffered burns was roughly the same between 75 mm and 88 mm A.P. penetrations into the hull, but that penetrations by 75 mm A.P. were more likely to lead to burn injuries when affecting the turret. Overall, however, the 88 mm A.P. was only marginally more likely to lead to burn injuries and a greater share of total casualties than the 75 mm A.P. The substantially greater energies involved with a hit from an 88 mm A.P. compared to a 75 mm A.P., would, on the face of it, have led to substantially higher numbers of burns injuries, but the conclusion was that this number was being masked by the increased fatality rate in tanks penetrated by that type of shell. The lower rate of burn casualties resulting from all H.C. penetrations was also notable. In a nutshell, penetrations by A.P. were substantially more likely to cause burn injuries than penetrations by H.C.

Considering this on a tank type basis allowed for a look at which tanks would be most likely, when penetrated by A.P., to burn and cause injury to the crews (table 24). The result was that, despite its reputation to crews for catching fire, the Sherman, when penetrated or catching fire, was not significantly more dangerous than the other tanks.

Extract from the report. Page 26.

The risk of being burned was, in fact, more a function of where the crew were in the vehicle than to which vehicle they were in and this was established in table 25. In that table, it is clear that it is the commander, gunner, and operator who were most likely to be injured than the driver or co-driver. Some of this was due to the habit of entering combat with the hatches open on the turret (particularly for the commander) for observations or to aid evacuation in case of fire. The same was also true to an extent for the hull crew, some of whom were found to have been injured when driving with their heads out. One unit (unnamed) caused particular antagonism between crews and unit commanders by consistently going into combat with both driver and co-driver hatches wide open to ensure ease of escape in case of fire.

One final point on hatches noted that the Sherman escape hatches in the floor proved useful for collecting casualties under fire and that the side hatches in the Churchill provided the men a chance to escape from the tank with a modicum of protection from enemy small arms.


Fires after being hit and penetrated were substantially more likely when penetrated by an A.P. shell, especially if it was an 88 mm shell, and the risk of burn injuries to the crew was also significantly correlated (table 26).

A large cause of secondary casualties in tanks was found to be the result of ammunition catching fire and detonating. This was more prevalent in A.P. penetration of the tank than from H.C. penetration, with around 20% of A.P. penetration related casualties caused from this ammunition problem.

The suggested solution to ameliorate this was to use the additional armor, as applied on the Sherman sides around the ammo, in protecting the crew instead.

The majority of burn injuries to crews were to the hands and face (Table 27) – the parts exposed and not covered by clothing, and two-thirds of the burns were second-degree or less, meaning that men could usually return to duty (81% in fact) after treatment.

Fires started after penetration by H.C. weapons were often confined to the area near to where the penetration had occurred and burn risk was strongly correlated for the crew members next to the ammunition. Whilst all of the clothing worn by tankers proved to burn at some point, no easy conclusions were forthcoming on the most suitable clothing other than it should be fireproof and cover the man’s body and limbs. More important from a statistical point of view for reducing casualties was that any tank coverall should be in a camouflage material, such as the Denison pattern paratroopers smock, in order to reduce the casualties to crew exposed to enemy small arms when getting out of the tank.

Burn injuries to crews were found to be three times more common in vehicles penetrated by 88 mm and 75 mm A.P. rounds than from hollow charge weapons. Importantly, however, the study had also found that “The incidence of burns was not significantly greater in Shermans than in other types of vehicle”, something contrary to popular myth.

The study also investigated whether injuries could be the result of delays in escape from the tank. It had been found in experiments on escape times for the M4 Sherman and A.27 Cromwell that both vehicles took about 2.5 seconds for the commander to get out of his open hatch to a standing position on the turret roof (an experiment, so standing on the roof was simply there to standardise the time without worrying about a transit time for the crew member to the ground). The gunner took 5 seconds to do the same and this was considered to be roughly the same for the Comet. The gunner, therefore, was exposed to an internal fire for twice as long as the Commander and this was reflected in the real life casualty figures from Operation Veritable in the report.
This was an enormous take away for the report. Experiments had shown a potential problem and this had been borne out in real life combat analysis. The recommendation was that time to escape from a burning tank must be kept to 2.5 seconds or less to avoid burn injuries and 2.5 to 5 seconds to avoid men being burned to death. It was found to take 1-2 seconds just to open a hatch and these were supposed to be closed in combat, especially for the hatches other than the Commander’s. The authors strongly recommended the adoption of an instantaneously opening hatch to expedite crew evacuation in a fire.

65% of the commanders and just over 20% of operators who were casualties were wounded directly as a result of being exposed through an open hatch. Between 14% and 20% of those casualties were directly attributable to small arms fire because they were exposed, although this was reduced for tanks whose crews had improved splash shields around the hatches for the men.

One experimental device mentioned by the authors was the ‘fog apparatus’. Automatically triggered by an internal fire, this device extinguished fires within two seconds and, although it was available during the Operational period investigated, it clearly had the potential to substantially reduce the fire-casualty risk inside the tanks. However, the authors went one step beyond that point too. As the majority of penetrations (particularly by A.P. shells) led to fires (Table 28), they suggested that the ‘fog apparatus’ should be triggered not just by a flame detector, but primarily by a penetration detector. The problems of the apparatus being triggered by a penetration even when there was not a fire was a small price to pay to increase the chances of the crew getting out in time.

In terms of a major fire, that is a fire which destroyed the entirety of the tank and contents in both engine and crew compartments, these were the worst kind and led to the most injuries. This was in contrast to the minor fires, which were tightly contained to just a single compartment or section within a compartment and caused localised or minor injuries.

Despite the report concluding that the Sherman was at no greater risk of a fire than the other vehicles, the data showed a significant difference between the M4 Sherman and A.27 Cromwell, and to a lesser extent, with the Comet, for a relative risk of major fires following a hit by an A.P. shell. The Sherman was nearly twice as likely to suffer a major fire after such a hit than the A.27 Cromwell, and this remained the same for H.C. penetrations (Table 29).

A.P. penetrations created a risk of a major fire on average at a rate of 30.5% of penetrations and 61% of all major fires across the tanks. H.C. penetrations, on the other hand, caused a major fire at a rate of just 15.0% and accounted for only 30% of all the major fires. This was regardless of where the vehicle was hit or penetrated although, as previously established, penetrations into the Sherman’s engine bay stood a greater chance of leading to a fire than for other vehicles and that hull penetrations caused more burn injuries than turret penetrations (Table 30).

Adding up all of the major fires caused by A.P. and H.C. from Tables 28 and 29 provides for the final delineation between the relative major fire risk from penetrations by A.P. and H.C. and clearly shows the substantially higher risk from A.P. penetration (Table 31).

Although many fires were associated with the petrol inside the tanks catching fire, this was primarily a concern for engine-bay penetrations and especially so for the M4 Shermans, although it was only a minor cause of burn injuries. Despite this, looking at the number of fires which occurred in M4 Sherman tanks, the difference in diesel vs petrol engines versions was stark (Table 32). More fires, and fires which happened more quickly, giving the crew less time to escape, occurred in petrol-engined M4 Shermans than in diesel engined ones, with the obvious exception of the 17 pdr. armed vehicles, for which no clear explanation presented itself. Comparing the 75 mm-armed M4 Sherman with a petrol engine to the A.34 Comet or even the A.22 Churchill, both of which also had petrol engines, confirmed the additional fire risk from a petrol-engined vehicle. The Sherman with the petrol engine was simply more likely, after being hit, to have a fire start with little or no warning than either its contemporary tanks (the single data point for the A.30 Challenger here provides no insight), such as the A.27 Cromwell, A.34 Comet, or even A.22 Churchill, even the A.22 Churchill with the flamethrower which had extra fuel lines and a large bowser on the back – the Crocodile. Table 33 sums up these differences with a contrast readily apparent between the 75 mm armed M4 Sherman with a petrol engine and diesel engine, whereby ammunition fires accounted for ⅔ of all known fires in the petrol vehicle and the petrol accounting for the other third, compared to the diesel engined vehicle, with zero fires known to be connected to the fuel.

The major cause of fires and casualties was actually burning ammunition propellant from ruptured shell cases. This is particularly hazardous in the case of an Armor Piercing shell-casing, as it has a greater quantity of propellant inside and liberated enormous amounts of energy extremely quickly when burned. The combustion of the ammunition was also considered a secondary hazard by the authors of the report, as exploding ammunition inside the tank also led to other casualties. Ammunition stored in the crew compartment caused 19% of all related casualties and 16% of all A.P. and H.C.-related penetrations.

The statistical analysis of hits, damage, and fire risk concluded that additional armor on the sides over the ammunition added no real value in saving lives compared to adding the equivalent weight of protection on the front of the tank. Report Page 4
75 mm and 17 pdr.-armed Shermans belonging to the Royal Scots Greys in the German town of Wismar, 2nd May 1945, amidst the chaos of debris of the German retreat. Source: IWM


The study into these losses covered a statistically significant sample size of both men and vehicles in a relatively discrete time during this one operation. It does, however, warrant caution, as a report from which too wide of a conclusion may be drawn for the whole war. This was 1945 and Germany was collapsing, so the data here cannot be taken as reflective of combat in general.

There are, despite this reserve, some significant points which can be taken away. When it came to a threat to Allied tanks, the most significant threat was from enemy A.P.-firing weapons and H.C. weapons like the Panzerfaust. The majority of enemy gunfire was directed at the front of the tank and a negligible amount at the rear. The majority of casualties, both direct and indirect, were the result of penetrations of the armor by A.P. hits.

The majority of tank casualties were the result of fire from 75 mm guns, yet the 88 mm gun caused more fatalities per penetration and caused more fires. The general combat range for guns was under 1,000 yards (914 m) and mines generally were not a concern, although floor protection on the A.27 Cromwell was also inadequate.

Fires were mainly the result of ammunition burning or exploding (also a source of secondary injury). The conclusion drawn from both of those points was that the front of the tank should not only carry the majority of the armor, but also that adding additional armor on the sides of the M4 Sherman to protect the ammunition was better utilised directly on the front of the tank and also in protecting the crew from the ammunition inside.
Despite the report concluding that M4 Shermans were not generally more at risk of fires than other tanks, the data showed somewhat otherwise. The petrol engined M4 Shermans were more likely to have fires start with little or no warning than the diesel equivalent or even their petrol-engined contemporaries. Notwithstanding that, ammunition was cited as the primary cause of fires, the preponderance of petrol-engined 75 mm M4 Shermans to burn is not to be ignored.

Also for armor, the study, despite not being able to look directly at A.22 Churchill tanks, suggested that, due to the heavier armor, these suffer fewer casualties amongst men who were only partially exposed in those vehicles but the sample size was not large enough to make a determination on the point. When it came to penetration of the A.22 Churchill, it showed no more survivability for the crews than the other tanks, producing the same ratio of killed and injured.

It was also clear that the distribution of armor on a tank to protect against A.P. fire had to be differently emphasized on a vehicle to protect primarily against H.C. weapons and that the fatal effects inside the tank were more severe following an A.P. strike than from an hit by a H.C. weapon.

For the crew, they must be kept as far from the ammunition as possible, notwithstanding any efforts at fire suppression or efforts to protect the ammunition from damage. Further, the predominance of head injuries both fatal and non-fatal demanded action on ballistic head protection. The need to evacuate in a fire was extreme – all crew had to be able to egress the tank within two seconds and current hatches were grossly inadequate for this across all tanks.

What the series of reports tells is a complicated yet thorough assessment of survivability. The M4 Sherman tank was, in fact, more likely to burn following penetration than other tanks and some of that was indeed due to the petrol in the engine bay catching fire. The large majority, however, were not – they were, like the majority of fires in other tanks, a function of the ammunition burning inside.

The height of a tank was a factor in reducing the vulnerability to being hit by enemy fire but the additional height of an M4 Sherman over an A.27 Cromwell accounted for relatively few hits and penetrations. With the height being dominated by the turret, this also resulted in few injuries proportionally.

As far as reducing height went, attention should therefore be on reducing hull profile rather than turret or overall profile for survivability from a height point of view.

It is interesting to note, from a historical point of view, the statistical analysis of tank and crew losses indicated to the designers that a tank, even with limited gun traverse, emphasising armor immune to enemy fire from the front, could have substantial combat value. Comparing this to the decisions by the Germans in these later years of WW2 is interesting, with increasingly heavily protected S.P.-type guns, including the Jagdtiger. It should be noted however, that the key difference between the British lessons and the German practice was that the British wanted a seated crew in the hull rather than a giant casemate type design with men standing inside it.

A Comet tank from the 23rd Hussars, 11th Armoured Division.
A Cromwell IV of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, 7th Armoured Division.
An M4 Sherman of the 2nd Batallion Irish Guards, Guards Armoured Divison.
A British M5A1 Stuart.


Hills, A. (2021). An Unnecessary Burden. The Sherman Tea Tray Anti-Land Mine Device. FWD Publishing, USA
Medical Research Council Report BPC. 45/444. (1945). Casualties among Tank Crews in 11th Armoured Division in Operation Veritable. 27th February to 4th March 1945. Captain H. B. Wright and Captain R.D. Harkness, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Medical Research Council Report BPC. 45/419. (1945). The Distribution of Casualties Amongst the Crews of Cromwells and Shermans. Captain H. B. Wright and Captain R.D. Harkness, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Medical Research Council Report BPC. 45/453. (1945). Casualties In Armoured Fighting Vehicles. Captain R. Mayon White.
Medical Research Council. (1946). A Survey of Casualties Amongst Armoured Units in North West Europe. Captain H. B. Wright and Captain R.D. Harkness, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Official History of the Canadian Army: The Victory Campaign. Chapter XIX: The Battle of the Rhineland Part II. Canadian Department of National Defense. Ottawa, Canada.
US Army Technical Manual ™-E-30-451. Handbook on German Military Forces. March 1945

Cold War US Tactics

1983 Invasion of Grenada

USA vs Grenada

Grenada, the southernmost island nation in the Grenadines in the Caribbean, is a tropic island known as the spice island thanks to the harvesting of nutmeg. It had been a British colony since 1763, but in 1967, it was granted home rule on the road to independence. Grenada became a fully independent nation in 1974. Following a coup in 1979 and the new pro-Cuban government, relationships with the West began to fall apart. This was exacerbated by the construction of a large new airport facility with Cuban support at the capital, as it started to assert its political and military influence. This became a crisis at the end of 1983, which resulted in a military invasion by the United States with some support from other Caribbean islands. The invasion, expected to be quick and simple and under the justification of rescuing American citizens and restoring order, became a symbol of both the power of a newly assertive US military, just a few years after the failures of Vietnam, and also of its weaknesses in terms of organization, preparation, and coordination. The invasion is notable for both the use and lack of use of armor in support of operations.

Background and Political Crisis

This tiny island – just 349 km2 (135 sq. miles) – with a population of 110,000, had been a British colony from 1763 until it gained home rule in 1967 and full independence in 1974. The new nation and member of the British Commonwealth, under the leadership of Sir Eric Gairy, began a decline in economic terms straight afterward. Following this decline becoming a full economic crisis, Maurice Bishop seized power in an armed coup in 1979. This action and seizure of power marked a political shift to the left and closer ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, with the new party in power: the New Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education, and Liberation (JEWEL), which had been formed by Bishop back in March 1973 but with the coup came the end of US aid and a collision course between the USA and Grenada was set.

Map of the nation of Grenada, with the main island and several smaller islands lying to the North East in the Grenadines island chain.

Progressively, the party, renamed as the ‘New Jewel Movement’ (NJM), removed democratic limitations and replaced them with a more Marxist-leaning government. This included removing the influence of the Governor-General, Sir Paul Scoon. Seeking to change the direction of the island nation, Bishop sought ties outside of the nation’s traditional influencers, like the United States and the United Kingdom, and instead moved to embrace Cuba, the Soviet Union, and even to a lesser extent, pariah states like Libya and North Korea.

Maurice Bishop in the white shirt on the left, stood next to President Fidel Castro of Cuba in the army uniform on the right.

Construction of the airport with two runways, each measuring 2,743 m long and 45 m wide, at Port Salinas began in the late 1970s, with around 600 Cuban construction workers being sent to help with the building, which was in two phases. Phase 1 was an initial 1,700 m foot long segment which, due to delays, was not going to be finished until the end of January 1982. This would be followed by the extension phase to make it a full 2,743 m long and could take an additional couple of years.

According to Grenada, this runway was for tourism and economic development purposes. This would be backed up by the funding sources, which, contrary to media reports at the time of the investigation, was not solely a Cuban venture. The Cubans, in fact, were to supply just US$10 m worth of labor and material (22% of the total cost) over a 3 year initial construction period for the runway and the terminal resort which was planned. Venezuela (about 160 km to the southwest) was funding the project to the tune of US$500,000 worth of labor and was also to supply the diesel fuel for construction, as well as petrol and asphalt. Financing from the Middle East was also speculated as a source of loans, as attempts to obtain money for it from Europe and Canada had failed. It is known that the PRC had managed to obtain US$20 m in loans from the IMF. Certainly, this was no clandestine project, especially when you consider the British agreed to underwrite a loan to Grenada totaling GBP£6 m for the purchase of electronic systems from Plessey for the airport. This would also be the second major landing strip on the island, as there was an existing one at Pearls, measuring some 1,524 m long. Pearls was about 25 km to the northeast of St. George’s, so the development of a new runway for the capital was clearly going to be useful for the economic development of the island, as well as whatever military use it might be seen as offering. It would also be much larger than the one at Pearls – long enough to allow landings by planes such as the Boeing 747-400, which needed around 1,880 m to land and stop safely.

American military analysts were less inclined to the tourism explanation and determined that it would also potentially allow MiG 23s fighters to operate from there, as well as extending the range of Cuban fighter-bombers across the whole Caribbean. Geo-politically, it could also potentially serve as a base for supporting Soviet influence in Central America and Cuban influence in Africa, as it was some 2,575 km closer to Angola than Havana. In 1980, Bishop signed a mutual aid assistance agreement with the Soviets, which did indeed give them landing rights at this airfield for their long-range surveillance aircraft.

The ‘gotcha’ moment – One of the satellite photographs of the runway being built on Grenada unveiled by President Reagen to a credulous US public on 23rd March 1983. The use of the photo supported the false narrative that this was a clandestine construction. If the US military had really wanted better photos of the runway, they may have been better served in getting them from the Miami-based contractor who was helping build it or from one of the hundreds of US students who lived next door and went jogging around it every morning.
Source: US Department of Defense

It is not hard to imagine that, regardless of the original purpose of the runway, it could be used by larger aircraft and potentially changed the balance of power in the region. Cuban ulterior motives would not be hard to justify, given the influence of the Cuban regime on Bishop’s Government, although it would be wrong to suggest that Bishop was a stooge planted by Cuba. The Cubans did not even recognize Bishop’s leadership for a month after he took power (14th April) by which time the UK and the United States had already done so (20th March 1979).

Funding and technical assistance for the radio were not, however, Cuban – it was Soviet in the form of two technical advisors and funding, on top of the very modest financial gift of US$1.1 m in agricultural and construction equipment and vehicles. The Soviets were no doubt pleased with the leftist drift of Grenada, but let Cuba exercise its own sphere of influence rather than become directly embroiled.

Despite this leftist shift and the engagement with Cuba, Grenada was, however, no Marxist or isolationist state. Indeed, the foreign ownership of property was still permitted and many US citizens, in particular, had houses or land there. The Medical School at Saint George’s University was specifically run for and paid for by US citizens. Thus the Grenadian revolution can be seen as more ‘anti-imperialism’ than ‘anti-American’ or ‘anti-western’.

The south-western end of Grenada, with the capital city of St. Georges. The runway and location of St. George’s University lie at the southern end of the city. To the north is Grand Anse Beach and to the east is Lance aux Epines.
Source: Google Earth

Probably the most obvious example of Cuban influence was the construction of a new 75 kW AM radio transmitter and mediumwave tower capable of broadcasting across the whole island as well as to neighboring islands, under the name Radio Free Grenada (15.104 and 15.945 kHz). This replaced the old Windward Islands Broadcasting Service (WIBS). This was seen as a counter to the Americans building a broadcasting station for Voice of America on the island of Antigua, some 550 km away to the north.

Radio Free Grenada.
Source: cawarstudies via Raines

Radio Free Grenada had the range to be able to be detected all across the Caribbean and there survives a 6-minute 36-second recording from them made in January 1980 which was picked up in Louisville, Kentucky – a distance of 3,758 km.

This is not to say that the USA was openly hostile to Grenada either, far from it – Bishop had actually been personally received in Washington D.C. in June that year and met by the US National Security Advisor William Clark. The situation was, however, awkward and a hawkish vehemently anti-communist President Reagan meant that the situation could easily cross a tipping point into a less cordial relationship. Grenada was a problem and was being monitored but there was no clear course of action to follow.

This tense geopolitical balancing act started to fall apart through the summer of 1983, resulting in a power-sharing agreement between Bishop and the more radical former Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. It fell to pieces on 12th October, when Coard deposed Bishop and placed him under house arrest, only for Bishop to be freed by his own supporters a week later and take up residence at Fort George (renamed Fort Rupert in 1979 and now renamed, once more, as Fort George).

Bernard Coard, one of those behind the coup in Grenada and the murder of Maurice Bishop.

General Hudson Austin, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Grenada and a backer of Coard, sent at least 3 BTR-60PB armored personnel carriers to Fort Rupert on the 19th. There, Austin’s troops recaptured Bishop, and summarily executed him along with several of his cabinet ministers for good measure, removing a major potential challenge to leadership on the island. Perhaps buoyed by the newfound power, Austin sought to consolidate it for himself rather than Coard. Both Coard and Austin marked a shift towards Marxism and further into the sphere of influence of Cuba in the minds of the Americans. Whilst Coard and Austin may also have sought this attention and closer relationship, the Cubans were at best unhappy with this state of affairs, as they could clearly see it might provoke a US response and leave them in a difficult political position.

Poor quality photograph of the attack on Fort Rupert (Fort George), showing a column of at least 3 BTR-60 PB armored personnel carriers.
Source: airspacehistorian via Seabury and McDougall

General Austin proceeded to dissolve the civilian government and implement a Revolutionary Military Council, with himself as spokesman and de facto head of state. With the airport closed to all departures and arrivals, and a 24-hour curfew put in place for a 4 day period, Austin had managed to impose not only a coup but also martial law in very little time and with little difficulty. He was to rule Grenada for just 6 days.

“Let it be clearly understood that the Revolutionary Armed Forces will govern with absolute strictness. Anyone who seeks to demonstrate or disturb the peace will be shot. An all-day and all-night curfew will be established for the next four days. From now until next Monday at 6:00 p.m. No one is to leave their house. Anyone violating this curfew will be shot on sight. All schools are closed and all workplaces except for the essential services until further notice.”
Curfew broadcast from Radio Free Grenada by
General Hudson Austin, 2110 hours 19th October 1983

General Hudson Austin
Source: via AP Newsarchive

In doing so, he made a fundamental error and managed to ‘trap’ around 600 US medical students who were attending St. George’s School of Medicine, as well as around 400 US citizens on the island. This lockdown was therefore used as a convenient casus belli by the Reagan administration to invade, remove the Marxist government and restore a democratic one that would be friendly and receptive to the interests of the United States. All this was to be done with none of the legal hurdles of an embargo or UN Resolution. As a matter of political convenience then, this ‘rescue’ would also establish the dominance of American, and to a lesser extent, other Caribbean-nation interests’ in the area. It should also be noted that the lockdown was not in place for long and was lifted at 0600 hours on 24th October, with flights out of Pearls resuming. It was also brought to the attention of the US Embassy in Barbados that only around half of the students in Grenada wanted to leave and, as far as can be ascertained, no efforts or approaches whatsoever were made to evacuate them peacefully.

It was not, however, despite the alleged threats towards these US citizens, enough impetus to actually plan for military intervention for several more days, with the initiation of the plan of 17th October followed by a Warning Order from the Joint Chiefs on 19th October. Planning for a military operation to evacuate citizens was specifically ordered by President Reagan on the 21st but may have started earlier with some preliminary ideas of a military resolution.

It has to be noted that this sudden urgency and the seemingly disorganized response was in contrast to the fact that, just two years prior (August 1981), USLANTCOM (United States Atlantic Command) had conducted large-scale joint operations exercises on exactly this scenario, with Marines and Rangers leading an invasion of a Caribbean island to rescue US citizens. Yet, as will be seen, few, if any, lessons had been drawn from that major exercise and the actual deployment to Grenada was a mess marred with accidents and confusion.

Intelligence Failure, Legal Legitimacy, and the Prelude to Invasion

Post-1979, military and intelligence cooperation with the USA or its allies, like Great Britain, by Grenada had effectively ended, leaving a vacuum in which the island’s invasion had to be planned at short notice. Even so, as previously noted, this was as much through a lack of effort and foresight as it was just a matter of a short time span in which to do it. The construction of the airfield at Point Salinas was hardly a surprise or even a secret and the islands were close enough and had been Allied under the British for long enough there was no excuse for a lack of maps of the place.

In fact, when the US military invaded, the best available map was on the USS Gaum and was itself based on an even more ancient 1896 nautical chart. As bad as going to war on the back of a century old map was, there was not even the opportunity to make good copies of it, as the only copier onboard the USS Gaum was not good enough to copy it. Thus, the invasion took place with grossly inadequate maps, such was the rush and shambles in which the operation was cobbled together. Delta forces were slightly better off, as they had some Michelin tourist maps of the Windward Islands at hand – ideal maybe for knowing where to get a good lobster en croûte, but not so much for a military assault or a reconnaissance by special forces.

On top of that inadequacy, there was not even to be a joint on-ground command. Vice Admiral Metcalf would command the operation from the safety of the USS Gaum, with the separate Army (Ranger) and Navy (Marine) forces reporting directly to him. Neither force was to support the other logistically and neither would share supplies without confirmation of reimbursement for the cost of the supplies shared because service boundaries were more important in a pointless turf-war between services than a shared objective. Vice Admiral Metcalf’s suggestion on the 24th (the day before the invasion) of placing General Schwarzkopf on the ground to command forces was overruled by Admiral McDonald back in Virginia, on the basis that Major General Ed Trobaugh of the 82nd Airborne was senior. This decision guaranteed that, at least for the opening stages, there would be no single dedicated commander on the ground.

As well as the lack of geographic information, there was also an unclear idea of the armed forces against which they may have to fight. Estimates of Grenadian opposition put the number at around 1,000 to 1,200 regular troops of the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) under General Hudson Austin. On top of this were up to 2,400 members of the People’s Revolutionary Militia (PRM) under Winston Bullen (who was also the manager of the Grenada Electricity Company, known as Grenlec) although this was believed to have been largely disarmed and disbanded by the PRA, with Bullen executed when Austin seized control. The bulk of weapons were in those two forces, including modern small arms, like AK 47s, and the BTR-60 and BRDM-2 armored vehicles, although the militia, in particular, were a loose and irregular force which could also be seen using .303 caliber WW2-era bolt action British Enfield rifles.

A female member of the People’s Revolutionary Militia armed with an AK-47.
Source: Revolutionary Govt. of Grenada.

A 300-500 strong Grenada Police service (GPS) was also available, under Major Ian St. Bernard, although these were not combat troops and included the Coast Guard, Immigration, and Prison Services. Total naval forces were minimal, with just four torpedo boats and there was no combat air force or even a radar on the island. The armored vehicle assets available to the PRA were tiny – just 6* Soviet BTR-60 armored personnel carriers, a pair of BRDM-2 armored cars delivered from the Soviet Union in 1981-1982, and no tanks at all.
(* A US intelligence survey post-war says 7, but only 6 can be accounted for)

The BTR-60PB was an 8 wheeled armored personnel carrier with distinctive pointed front and sloping sides. Amphibious, simple, and cheap, the vehicle has been widely exported and used since it was first designed in the 1950s. At just 10 tonnes, the vehicle could carry up to 12 men (2 crew and 10 troops) to battle and then support them by use of a single 14.5 mm KPVT machine gun and a 7.62 mm machine gun. The vehicle was proof against small arms fire up to heavy machine gun caliber thanks to between 5 mm (floor) and 10 mm (turret front) of fully welded steel armor. Powered by a pair of GAZ-40P 6-cylinder petrol engines delivering 90 hp each (180 hp total), the vehicle could attain a speed of up to 80 km/h on a road, meaning it could rapidly deploy from one place to another, providing flexibility for a relatively lightly equipped force.

The BRDM-2 was another amphibious, light, and highly mobile armored vehicle from the Soviet Union. Designed back in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, the vehicle was still, despite its age, a serious threat to troops, especially those without anti-armor weapons. Armed with the same 14.5 mm KPTV machine gun and a 7.62 mm machine gun in a small frustoconical turret like the BTR-60PB, the BRDM was a smaller vehicle with just four wheels and a crew of 4. With armor up to 14 mm thick, the BRDM-2 was also fully protected against small arms up to heavy machine gun fire and shared the same major benefits of the BTR-60PB – namely, it was cheap, simple, and effective. It was also highly mobile courtesy of a single V8 petrol engine delivering 140 hp, allowing the vehicle to reach a somewhat dangerous 95 km/h on a road.

Of note in the assessment of the strength of Grenadian forces is that, although the US Joint Chiefs’ report mentioned 6 BTR-60s, SIPRI records deliveries of 12 such vehicles, and the CIA say in one report 6, and in another 8 BTR-60s, along with two BRDM armored cars. The CIA also notes that an agreement signed in 1981 included deliveries scheduled between 1982 to 1985 that would bring an additional 50 APCs. Their analysis of captured documents after the 1983 invasion revealed eventual plans to have sufficient small arms for theoretically arming up to 10,000 men, although, in practice, this would only be adequate to field a force of around 5,000 and 60 APCs and patrol vehicles. As far as aircraft went, just one plane was known and this was to be a Soviet AN-26 to haul up to 39 paratroopers, although the AN-26 found after the invasion was in the civilian colors of a Cuban airline.

Men of the Peoples’ Revolutionary Militia of Grenada carrying rifles and making use of a Series I or II Land Rover as a transport. Source: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

As far as heavy weapons or air defense were concerned, the forces were primarily the Soviet-supplied ZU-23-2 mm anti-aircraft guns. All of these vehicles and weapons were believed at the time of invasion to be centered around the airfield at Port Salinas.

With a range of up to 2.5 km and capable of delivering 400 rounds per minute, these were not to be underestimated, especially as a threat to low flying aircraft. Admiral McDonald, in what was to be a demonstration of hubris on the part of American planners, described the forces on Grenada as a “third rate, lightly armed and poorly trained adversary”, a comment which contradicted his own claim of “well trained professional” Cuban troops being present, and thereby underscoring that his claim was without evidence or merit.

Soviet-supplied and Czechoslovakian-built M-53 quadruple 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun seen in use by the PRA during exercises before the invasion. Source: USMC
Another low-resolution image of PRA forces using an M-53 anti-aircraft gun. This image was reproduced on a poster encouraging people to join the militia (PRM) to resist ‘Imperialist Aggression’. Source:

The status of Cubans on the island was unclear, with two vessels, including the freighter Vietnam Heroica (which had delivered 500 tonnes of cement for the airport project), around 600 workers, and an unknown quantity of arms. The other ‘Cuban’ ship was the Kranaos, which was actually a Panamanian vessel chartered by the Cuban Government. It is clear from the intelligence analysis that, whilst the presence of these 600 workers and some arms of an unknown type was known, these were not the Cuban ‘threat’. Instead, the intelligence analysis provides for a threat of up to 250 armed Cubans who might have been possibly delivered by the Vietnam Heroica, although there was no evidence to support this rather tenuous supposition other than that this ship had been implicated in bringing Cuban forces to Angola in late 1975.

A CIA analysis of Grenadian opposition forces clearly lists some 350 construction workers, 25 medical personnel, 15 diplomats, and just 10-12 military advisors, for a total of just 400 Cubans, although this did not include the unknown numbers of the Vietnam Heroica, which was estimated at just an additional 200.

Either way, fewer than 2,000 enemy regular forces, and a few more irregular forces, effectively no navy, no air force, and some miscellaneous armored vehicles was hardly a military of par with the vast array of forces at the disposal of the United States. Admiral McDonald’s assertion of 1,100 ”well-trained professional” Cuban soldiers on the island was just utterly false. Later, US intelligence based on interviews with prisoners would show just 43 of them were even members of the Cuban armed forces, but that a dozen or more may have been ‘advisors’. The intelligence added that up to 50 Cuban military advisors might have been present too. In a taste of just how little Cuban opposition there really was, the most senior Cuban present was Colonel Pedro Comas who would only arrive on 24th October and begin plans to defend southern Grenada from the incoming American forces. He had achieved little more than some sandbagging by the time the Rangers confronted him the next day.

Even by this time, with active military planning for an invasion based on not much more than speculation and grand political machinations underway, the United States was still engaging with this military government. On 21st October, in fact, Donald Cruz, the US Consular Officer for Barbados, went to Grenada to meet with Major Leon Cornwall, the Head of the Revolutionary Military Council and President Reagan signed National Security Directive 110 ordering the US military to explore options for evacuating US citizens from the island.

At Bridgetown, Barbados, there was an emergency session of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) convened to try and bring stability to Grenada and the first substantial legal justification for going beyond the rescue of US citizens was established in the form of a vote on Article 8 of the OECS Collective Security Treaty 1981. Grenada was actually a member state of the OECS. The OECS were now looking at the island as being ruled by an ‘outlaw regime’ that needed to be removed calling for the restoration of order and democracy. The actual request, was, despite being drafted not by the OECS but by the American State Department, open to some questions about its validity, especially as it violated the principle of OECS members not taking action without unanimous consent – something unlikely to be agreed to by Grenada. Here, the members asked Barbados, Jamaica, and the United States (not members of OECS) to send a peacekeeping expedition to Grenada. This was followed a few hours later, in the early hours of 22nd October, by Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon asking for help in the form of a peacekeeping force to restore order and security. Implicit within that request would be the removal of the Revolutionary Military Council in Grenada although this was made clear in a TV interview aired on 31st October that year (after the invasion) Sir Paul Scoon clarified that whilst he specifically felt that only an invasion could remove the government that he asked not for an invasion but for outside help from OECS and the USA as well.

Members of the Eastern Caribbean Defence Force armed with 7.62 mm L1A1 Self-Loading Rifles (SLR) being loaded on US Helicopters prior to being ferried to Grenada after the US invasion. Source: US Army.

These two elements were not the end of the legality issue for the invasion. Grenada was part of the British Commonwealth, meaning any military incursion should at a minimum take place with the approval of the British. Further, under Article 51 of the UN Charter and Article 5 of the Rio Treaty, the United States would have to inform the UN Security Council of the reasons for the operation to justify it. The consultation with the British did take place, sort of. On 22nd October, a phone call was made between President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, no doubt with an eye on the successful British recapture of the Falklands after an Argentinian invasion, was well versed in just how complex an invasion was going to be and the potential for a great loss of civilian and military lives. From a political perspective too, had it gone horribly wrong, it would have caused serious damage to Western prestige as well as both political and military deterrence against the ongoing Soviet threat in Western Europe and beyond. On the other hand – a well-executed and swift American intervention with little loss of life would show the world America’s military prowess and capabilities, building not only confidence in US political decision making but also the ability of the military as a counter-force to the Soviets. Unknown to Thatcher was that, well before their phone call, Reagan had already given permission for the invasion to commence, rendering Thatcher’s concerns roundly ignored as even at this late stage military intervention could have been canceled.

Preparations of an Invasion Force

Two basic plans were developed for how to take Grenada, based on limited information, whilst further intelligence operations were being prepared hastily in the form of reconnaissance flights from SR-71 Blackbird and the TR-1 (U2) spy planes, as the CIA had no assets on the island. As it turned out, no data from those surveillance flights found its way to the assault force in time for the opening of hostilities. Planning was left to Combined Joint Task Force 120 (CJTF 120) under the command of Vice-Admiral Metcalf and he had been given less than 2 days to make his plans and initiate them. His deputy was Major General Herman Norman Schwarzkopf, later to be famous as the leader of Coalition Forces during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

Vice-Admiral Joseph Metcalf (left) and General Schwarzkopf (right). Source: wiki

The first of the two plans, ‘Plan A’, called for five C-130 Hercules aircraft to parachute drop JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) teams during the hours of darkness at Point Salinas and at Pearls. Fire support for the landing would come in the form of 4 AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships.

After capturing Point Salinas airfield, the plan was to move 6.5 km up the coast to St. George’s and capture the radio station and police headquarters. After that, another 6.5 km hop to capture the barracks at Calivigny. With the airfield, radio station, police HQ, and army barracks taken, 16 C-130 Hercules would then deliver the 1st and 2nd Ranger battalions at Point Salinas and Pearl to consolidate the ground and disperse any remaining enemy forces. This whole plan was somewhat optimistically estimated to take just 4 ½ hours.

The second option, ‘Plan B’, relied upon an amphibious assault combined with helicopter incursion of US Marines, followed by Rangers on beaches by Point Salinas and Pearl, which had already been scouted by teams of SEALs several hours earlier. This would be followed by a battalion of troops being landed either at the beach or at Point Salinas airfield, from where they could move to St. George’s School of Medicine and Grand Anse beach. From the beach, the Marines would then seize Calivigny Barracks. After these first two phases, a further force of Rangers would then be landed at Point Salinas and advance on the police HQ and Army HQ.

Plan A would take longer to put into place than plan B by several hours, but both plans came with the risk that, once they began, the students might be killed or taken hostage in retaliation.

Support for American forces would be provided in the form of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), which would provide small contingents from Jamaica and Barbados. OECS had only been around for two years (formed 1981) and was a partnership of Dominica, St. Lucia, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, Barbados, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines as a bulwark against the spread of Marxism in the Caribbean.

The Jamaican Defence Force (JDF) contribution consisted of a single rifle company, an 81 mm mortar section, and a medical section, amounting to a total of around 150 troops. The Barbados Defence Force (BDF) contribution consisted of a single rifle platoon of around 50 men.

Members of OECS arriving at Port Salinas airfield after the invasion. The mix of Army and police uniforms is a clear indication as to the variety of roles this force was expected to fulfill. The soldiers carry the 7.62 mm L1A1 SLR and the Police carry the .303 caliber Enfield rifle.
Source: wiki

As well as those local forces, an additional force of 100 constabularies (police) was to be sent by the OECS Regional Security Unit to help establish law and order. These three forces were to be used in their entirety in the securing of Richmond Hill Prison, Radio Free Grenada, the police headquarters, and Government House after US forces had secured them from Grenadian forces.


An invasion with such little preparation time and information was reliant on absolute secrecy. This need for secrecy utterly failed, as not only did the Cubans and Grenadians anticipate that some US action might be considered, but also the movement of US warships into the region was also reported in the media. This was despite the Joint Chiefs of Staff imposing a ‘SPECAT’ order (a special category of secrecy to avoid alerting the Grenadians to the plan). While the Americans immediately failed to keep this a secret, the exact nature of what they were planning would not be known – nonetheless, this put the locals on alert and this would later result in US casualties.

The Go

As forces started to move towards the region and plans were being finalized, the provisional order to initiate the invasion came on 22nd October 1983. This was to deploy a force of Marines, Rangers, and Airborne Troops, with the date set as 25th October, although it is important to note that this does not mean that an invasion was certain. Those three days were necessary to get the logistics and coordination in place for the operation to be conducted and at any time until then, the whole thing could be called off.

Plan A was the method selected for the invasion, with the battlegroup led by the USS Independence (out of Virginia) and Marine Amphibious Ready Group 1-84 (MARG 1-84) out of North Carolina. MARG 1-84 had been on its way by sea to Lebanon to replace the Marines of MARG 2-83 in Beirut when it was diverted to Grenada.

These two groups would launch their forces from 102 km (55 nautical miles) NW and 74 km (40 nautical miles) north off the coast of Grenada, respectively. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) teams and Rangers would leave from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina and Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia six hours beforehand. Before dawn on 25th October, these JSOC troops would attack the Grenadan police and military buildings around St. George’s and then advance quickly upon the Governor’s Residence to protect him.

Rangers and Marines would then be landed at Point Salinas and Pearl respectively. Men from 82nd Airborne Division would remain on alert at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in case they were needed. The whole island was effectively bifurcated into operational zones, with the north being allocated to the Marines and the south to the Army.

After achieving their goals and evacuating the citizens, a peacekeeping force of 300 men from Jamaica and Barbados would be airlifted to Grenada to work with the Governor-General on a new interim government. That was the plan.

Air support for the operation would be provided by the US Air Force in the form of 8 F-15s from 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing and 4 E-3A Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft from 552nd Airborne Warning and Control System detachment. These air forces would be protection for the task force on the remote chance of some outside interference being attempted by air.

23rd October

The order was on the 22nd, with the invasion set for the 25th. However, the next day, the 23rd, there was a disaster for the US Marines, not in the Caribbean, but in Beirut. The US Marine Corps barracks at Beirut Airport was targeted by a suicide bomber driving a truck, who plowed through the gate of the barracks and detonated a huge bomb that killed 241 American troops. Political analysis of this time connects the terrible events in Beirut as a bloody nose for America to the ‘distraction’ offered by success in Grenada for the forthcoming US Presidential elections in 1984. Certainly, the Grenada crisis provided some political relief for Reagan and was used to downplay the deaths in Lebanon during the subsequent elections.

In the immediate aftermath of this bombing, Secretary of State for Defense, Casper Weinberger, gave full power to General Vessey (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to invade Grenada. Gen. Vessey was a highly regarded and experienced officer who had seen combat both in World War II and in Vietnam.

General John Vessey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1982-1985. Source: wiki

24th October

With the go-order setting an invasion to start on the 25th, two C-130s dropped four-man US Navy SEAL teams off Point Salinas and Pearls to prepare for the landings. This was not a success. Firstly, the beach at Pearls was found to be unsuitable for an amphibious landing by the Marines, meaning they would have to come in by helicopter instead. Second, the first casualties for the US took place when four men of the 11-man SEAL team were lost in the rough seas off Port Salinas.

Initiation – 25th October 1983

The early hours of 25th October 1983 were to begin with a coordinated assault on the airstrips at Point Salinas and at Pearls. Before dawn that day, a 35-man Delta-force team had been landed at Point Salinas with a plan to clear the runway for the Rangers – it had been blocked with vehicles and boulders. This Delta force team was discovered due to the alertness of the Cubans and immediately pinned down by them. The result was that there would be no easy opportunity to land C-130’s. It would be four hours before the Rangers arrival turned this situation around.

C-130’s from Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, were to drop the lead elements of the invasion force from the sky. However, this plan started with the failure of the onboard navigation system, meaning the following aircraft had to have their course adjusted, delaying deployment by parachute of the Rangers at Point Salinas by 36 minutes.

No joint invasion could therefore happen, as the Marines at Pearls arrived first, hitting Pearls from helicopters at 0500 hours. Thus, the loss of tactical and strategic surprise had been achieved. The famous maxim attributed to Helmuth von Moltke the Edler (1800-1891) is phrased as ‘no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force’ – the plan was going wrong already.

Key points in the fight for the south of Grenada, 1983.
Source: USMC

With the delayed arrival of forces at Point Salinas, the first combat contact by other than special forces was made by the Marines at Pearls. The opposition, however, was token at best, in the form of ineffective fire from 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns, which were quickly eliminated by the supporting AH-1 Cobra gunships. With that out of the way, the Marines moved unhindered to Grenville, where they occupied the town.

Soviet-made Antonov AN-26 transport aircraft belonging to Cuban airlines captured at Pearls airfield by the US Marines.
Source: US National Archives.
Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt belonging to the Soviet national civilian airline Аэрофлот captured at Pearls airfield by US Marines. The tail of the AN-26 can be seen behind it.
Source: US National Archives

The Marines spent a total of just two hours achieving a total initial success for their part in the opening phase. The only small wrinkles in the whole affair for the Marines had been two Marines injured and a Jeep fitted with a TOW anti-tank guided missile system damaged during the unloading from the CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters rather than enemy action.

M151 fitted with a TOW ATGM system belonging to US Marines landed at Pearls in front of what is recorded as captured members of the PRA, although these are likely just locals, as umbrellas or parasols are infrequent items on military issue. Source: US National Archives
CH-53 Sea Stallion dropping off Marines at Pearls airfield 25th October 1983. Source: airspacehistorian via Raines
US Marines moving through the town of Grenville. The first Marine is still wearing an M1 Steel Helmet and carries both an M72 66 mm LAW and an M16A1 rifle fitted with an M203 Grenade Launcher. The second Marine is carrying an M16A1. Only the second Marine appears to be wearing body armor in the form of a PASGT( Personal Armor System Ground Troops) vest. Source: US National Archives
USMC foot patrol through the town of Grenville. Note that the second Marine back has the enjoyment of carrying an M47 Dragon ATGM. The lead Marine is notably wearing both an M1 Steel Helmet and the PASGT Kevlar vest and carries an M16A1 rifle.
Source: US National Archives

The Marines were fine, the Rangers were delayed and special operations were not going according to plan. Another SEAL-team raid, this time to capture the key location of the transmitter of Radio Free Grenada, also skirted with disaster. Two 6-man SEAL teams inserted by MH-60 Pavehawk helicopters, which landed in a nearby field, managed to capture the radio station, only to find that the local forces wanted it back. The PRA sent at least one BRDM-2 armored car and a number of men to recapture the transmitter. The result was a lengthy firefight in which the SEALs held off the Grenadian forces despite many of them being injured. They had to withdraw, as they lacked ammunition and any anti-tank weapons.

Aerial view of Radio Free Grenada taken by US Forces. The isolation of the building made it an easy target for a nearby landing in the field but also meant that, once inside, the team would be trapped or have to risk crossing open ground to escape to the sea. Source: Gettyimages
Soviet-made BRDM-2 of the PRA abandoned on Grenada. Source: M. Creen via Pintrest

Unable to communicate with their own support due to their radios not working, they escaped to the ocean and tried to steal a boat before finally managing to be rescued to the USS Caron.

Once more, a special forces operation had nearly lost the Americans a significant number of men and could have handed a media or political victory to the Grenadians and Cubans. The radio station had been crippled by the SEALs cutting the wires when they left, but also now had to be destroyed by naval and helicopter gunfire, meaning that it could not now be used, as per the original plan, to broadcast the good news of the ‘liberation’. As it was, there was damage caused to the building, but it was not leveled by bombing, although it had been rendered unserviceable. This meant that a new broadcast system would have to be employed.

The crippled Radio Free Grenada with the wires cut by the SEALs. Source:
‘Naval personnel’ (4th Psychological Operations Group and 193rd Electronic Communication Group) setting up an AN/TRT-22 50 kW AM radio transmitter (535 to 1,620 kHz) for ‘Spice Island Radio’, as it was called, to broadcast to the people of Grenada via a 76 m telescoping antenna tower. The original plan of using the transmitter of Radio Free Grenada had to be abandoned after the botched SEAL team raid. This new station was set up only after the capture of St. Georges, meaning a gap in any terrestrial radio broadcasting across the island. A 10 kW radio broadcast was, however, provided from a US Navy ship in the meantime. Source: US National Archives.

The special forces attack on the strategic location at Richmond Hill Prison was even worse. Five Black Hawk helicopters moving on the hill carrying troops from B Squadron Delta force and C Company Rangers from 1st Battalion came under fire from machine guns and 23 mm anti-aircraft guns based at Fort Frederick. The result was numerous hits on the aircraft and numerous injuries, although, incredibly, on the way in, no one was killed. Dropped at the prison, the special forces found it had been abandoned and the raid was aborted. Having watched the helicopters come in and now leave, the anti-aircraft gunners at Fort Frederick continued to fire on them and the luck of the men ran out when one helicopter was hit in the cockpit by a 23 mm shell, killing the pilot and leaving the helicopter to have to crash land. The other four helicopters made it back to the fleet with damage, which meant, in one case, an emergency landing. The crashed Black Hawk needed a rescue mission to recover the men stranded when it went down.

With the parachute drop at Point Salinas delayed, the drop ended up being carried out in the light of the dawn, with delivery at 0536 hours. Anti-aircraft and automatic weapons fire greeted them and the Joint Chief’s report also claims that there was anti-aircraft fire against C-130s approaching Point Salinas from Cuban forces on the ground. Quite how this could be identified between Grenadians and Cubans on the ground at the time by a C-130 crew is unclear and seems to fall prey to the ‘need’ to identify as much opposition as possible as being ‘Cubans’ rather than any practical or effective military determination. Regardless of whether it was a Cuban-fired bullet or a Grenadian-fired one, the fire was equally deadly and the loss of even a single C-130 could have resulted in a total disaster for the American forces.

However, the result of that fire from the ground was that some of the Rangers were deployed by parachutes at just 500 feet (152 m). Whilst dangerously low, this decision did prevent the loss of a C-130, as it put them below the anti-aircraft guns which had been positioned on the hills around the airport. With Rangers on the ground, a firefight now ensued between them and the Cubans and Grenadians at the airfield.

As more troops were being dropped or attempted to drop, they were now out of sequence and those who did land, did so all over each other, leading to total disarray on the ground. Here, where they were most vulnerable, and a total shambles thanks to the initial confusion being compounded, they could have been overrun or shot to pieces strung out on open ground. Just 40 men were on the ground instead of the hundreds intended. C-130s were having to turn away to avoid fire and unable to amass the force required, those few men were in a difficult position.

One of the culprits in what could have been a disaster at Port Salinas is this Czechoslovakian-made M-53 quad 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun on a trailer. Source:

The salvage of this debacle was only due to the judicious use of AC-130 gunships (1st Special Operations Wing USAF) providing fire support from above and a charge by the men almost at bayonet point to overwhelm the defenders narrowly averted a disaster. Instead of that disaster, the result was the capture of the airport, the end of opposition there, and the taking of around 150 prisoners, a number of arms, and a single BTR-60PB.

Trophies taken at Port Salinas airport include the fearsome M-53 quadruple 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun mount and a BTR-60PB. This vehicle was later recovered back to the United States for examination. Source: US National Archives
One of the parachute drops of Rangers in progress at Point Salinas, 25th October 1983. This one is clearly higher up but it is also, just as clearly, being carried out in broad daylight. This is likely men from the 2nd Battalion being dropped just after 0700 hours.
Source: airspacehistorian via Trujilo

With the airport finally in their hands, the Rangers set about trying to clear some of the debris, commandeering one of the bulldozers on what was still a building site. This incident was later conflated in the movie ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ (1986) to be where the bulldozer was turned into a ‘tank’ to run down Cuban positions.

Soviet-supplied construction equipment found at Port Salinas airport.
Source: US National Archives

Despite being primarily construction workers and not regular forces, the resistance these Cubans put up was actually taken by the US Joint Chiefs as a sign that a significant Cuban combat force was actually present on the island – a lie later to be reinforced by the rather cheesy 1986 Clint Eastwood movie ‘Heartbreak Ridge’. Photographic evidence shows at least a few Cubans in military uniform and the CIA post-invasion assessment of actual ‘troops’ put the total at less than 50 – about what you could expect as a security force for the construction project. Later searches of the airfield found a warehouse with a stock of arms and ammunition. A lot of press attention was directed at these supplies as the ‘evidence’ of a significant build-up of Cubans to help justify the invasion post-fact. Given the huge political interest by the US administration taken in photographing these supplies, it is noteworthy how few photographs exist of uniformed Cuban troops.

A US soldier, presumably a Ranger, escorts two Cuban prisoners at Point Salinas airfield. Notable for this soldier is the lack of a camouflage uniform, the old M1 Steel Helmet, as the US was in the process of transitioning to the Kevlar PASGT helmet, and the 66 mm LAW (Light Anti-tank Weapon) strapped to his back. He is also not wearing any body armor This is one of the few images of uniformed Cubans. Source:

As 2nd Battalion arrived after 0700 hours, two men were killed in the jump, another seriously injured, and a fourth tangled up in the harness and stuck on the plane. With reinforcements, the Rangers moved out from the airport towards Calliste, where strong resistance was met. After yet another lengthy gunfight, one Ranger was dead and 75 more prisoners were taken.

Soviet-built dump truck captured at Point Salinas airport and being used as a transport by troops from the 82nd Airborne, driving past a CH-46 Sea Knight. Note the number ‘190’ on the rear of the truck and a serial number on the door.
Source: US National Archives.
Another Soviet-built dump truck captured at Point Salinas airfield, repurposed by US forces. Note that this one carries the number 181. This vehicle appears to have been painted in a plain olive green color.
Source: US National Archives

By 0730 hours, the first Rangers of A Company, 1st Battalion reached the True Blue Campus next to the airfield and had another firefight with the PRA. Using M151 Jeeps fitted with M60 machine guns as their reconnaissance vehicle, the Rangers were ambushed by PRA forces, leaving three Rangers dead.

M151 Jeep belonging to the 2nd Ranger Battalion with a pintle-mounted M60 machine gun and a second machine gun at the passenger station. Note the addition of the wire cutter on the front of the Jeep. The soldiers appear to be wearing plain olive drab uniforms, M1 Helmets, and no body armor. The rifle used by the soldier at the back is an M16A1.
Source: US National Archives
US M151 Jeep belonging to 2nd Platoon 1/75 Rangers, Point Salinas, with a pintle-mounted M60 machine gun fitted with a night sight during a briefing in a break in the fighting. Note the lack of camouflage uniforms and the M1 Helmets.
Source: on Pintrest

It was not until 0900 hours that True Blue Campus was cleared and 138 of the American students located and secured. At this time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were digesting the stubbornness of the Cubans at Port Salinas and had decided they needed more men. Thus, two battalions of the 82nd Airborne, amounting to 1,500 men, who had been on standby, were ordered to the island. They embarked on their airlift at 1000 hours.

This was the correct decision, as it was rapidly becoming clear that the Grenadian and Cuban forces present were putting up a far stiffer resistance across the board than first thought during the planning stage. This decision would be reinforced by the fact that Rangers from B Company, who were to be landed at Fort Rupert to take and hold that location, had to turn back due to the ferocity of enemy anti-aircraft fire.

It would be surprising perhaps to the American planners that their caution after initial over-confidence was well justified. The men from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne had started to arrive just after 1400 hours and, just over an hour later, at 1530 hours, they were sorely needed to support the Rangers.

Two views of the same motorcycle and sidecar combination found at Port Salinas airfield and serving as a photo backdrop for two US Air Force Photographers to pose in front of members of the 82nd Airborne

American troops from an unidentified unit standing next to a small off-road motorcycle brought with them for reconnaissance work on an island about which they knew very little. Note the absence of camouflage uniforms and body armor, as well as the M1 Steel Helmet still in use. Source: US National Archives.

Here, a PRA counterattack had to be repulsed as they attempted to reclaim the airport. Supported by an unknown number of soldiers, three BTR-60PBs engaged the perimeter, which was being held by Rangers of 2nd Platoon, A Company. The value of bringing anti-tank equipment was made self-evident, as the Rangers engaged these vehicles with Dragon ATGMs, 66 mm LAWs, small arms, and grenades.

Two of the three BTR-60PBs stopped by the Rangers. Hits from the 66 mm LAW and a 90 mm recoilless rifle on these vehicles were reported, although the location of the hits cannot be determined nor is there evidence of burning.
Source: US National Archives

The ferocity of the resistance by the Rangers and concentration of fire on those BTR-60PBs is evidenced by the number of bullet strikes made on the front of the vehicle and that all of the tires have been shot out on both of them. There appears to be a penetration mark, possibly for a 66 mm LAW, on the upper section, near the roofline. Source: US National Archives
Two of the three BTR-60PBs taken by the Rangers after the PRA counterattack at 1530 hours, 25th October. Source: BBC News
A dead soldier of the PRA lies at the back of the second vehicle. Source: Pintrest

With two of the PRA vehicles knocked out or otherwise crippled and casualties taken as they unsuccessfully tried to break the American line, the PRA forces withdrew. The third BTR was then caught in the open by an AC-130 gunship and taken out by 105 mm gunfire.

The third BTR-60 PB caught in the open and preyed on by the 105 mm gun on the AC-130. The vehicle moved slightly between these shots, possibly as the result of the attempted recovery. Source: and Pintrest respectively.

After repulsing that attack, the airport was finally under the complete control of US forces. Whilst it had not been an easy task, it had been completed as a result primarily of the fighting abilities of the US troops, rather than the original plan for that location, which had exposed them to so much risk. Whilst that had finally worked out, things were not going so well elsewhere.

The SEALs who were part of the rescue team for Sir Paul Scoon had got to Government House, where he was being held under house arrest, and their mission nearly ended. One of the Black Hawk helicopters hovering whilst the SEALs rappelled down was struck by ground fire, which hit the pilot. He was seriously wounded but the helicopter did not crash. Once more, the loss of a helicopter at a critical juncture in the operation was narrowly averted. On the ground, the 15-man SEAL team managed to overcome the guards, but then could not leave with Sir Paul Scoon, as their presence had been detected and BTR-60 APCs had arrived and opened fire on them.

Unable to tackle even this light enemy armor, the SEALS became trapped and were in serious danger of being overwhelmed. With the Rangers unable to rescue them, combat air sorties by AH-1 Sea Cobra helicopter gunships and an AC-130 Spectre gunship were used to support the SEALs until help could arrive. Outside Government House, one BTR-60PB was taken out by 40 mm fire from an AC-130 gunship, which set the vehicle on fire.

Two views of the BTR-60PB knocked out by Government House due to fire from an AC-130. Source: Mike Stelzel and Pintrest respectively.

Grenadian resistance was continuing and heavy anti-aircraft fire was being received from Fort Frederick and Fort Rupert. One of the AH-1 helicopters conducting fire support over St. George’s was struck by this fire and crashed into a football field near the shore, causing the death of the copilot and seriously injuring the pilot. A helicopter rescue was then initiated using a CH-46, with an AH-1 gunship as protection, AA fire struck that second AH-1, sending it crashing into the harbor, killing both the pilot and copilot.

Fort Frederick, an old British Fort overlooking the harbor, was well situated and dominated the area. Further helicopter air operations were just far too dangerous and an airstrike against the anti-aircraft positions was ordered by Vice-Admiral Metcalf. There was a known risk of civilian casualties in doing so, but it was deemed necessary and carried out by Navy A-7 Corsairs launched from the USS Independence.

The goal was to reduce the anti-aircraft fire and also take out what was believed to be a military command post. Lacking maps and any ground indication of the target, those Corsairs managed to bomb a mental hospital at Fort Frederick at 1535 hours. Eighteen patients died in the attack.

A wrecked truck belonging to the PRA which had been outfitted with a search lamp is examined by US troops. Judging by the relaxed attire, this would appear to have been taken after the fighting had stopped. Source: US National Archives.

The American plan was going horribly wrong, as the ‘third rate’ military force in Grenada was proving stubborn and the Cuban construction workers were being diagnosed as being a battalion in strength, such was their resistance. Resistance was fierce and sporadic and casualties, both Americans and civilians, were now rising. On top of that, only 138 medical students had been found. It was realized that 200 more were on the campus at Grand Anse. By noon that day, troops had reached the True Blue Campus but not located the students.

The Marines, having been a victim of their own success, were thus retasked with a landing at Grand Mal Bay north of St. George’s to outflank the Grenadian forces and to draw them out of the city, in an effort to bring the invasion to an end and also to rescue the trapped SEALs.

The USMC obliged and, at 1900 hours that day, landed a force from G Company, consisting of 5 M60A1 tanks, 13 amphibious vehicles (LVTP-7s), Jeep fitted with TOW ATGMs, along with 250 men, at Grand Mal Bay. This landing began at 1750 hours and was complete by 1910 hours. It is important to note that the Marines were the only US force to bring tanks with them – the Army brought none. In fact, the Army brought no armored combat vehicles of any kind, and, perhaps for this reason, the Marines found their life substantially easier. By 0400 hours, 26th October, F Company began to arrive as well by helicopter and G Company moved south and east to trap the Grenadians and any Cuban support and also to try and rescue the SEALS at Government House. With their armor advantage, resistance was light, as there were few weapons available to the militia with which they could put up any defiance. It was not until 0712 hours that this Marine force finally reached Government House.

The M60 was a 1950s design for a new main battle tank and is distinguished by a large cast steel turret and hull with a large flat glacis plate. With armor 109 mm and 254 mm thick on the front of the hull and turret, respectively, and side armor 36 – 76 mm thick, the tank was completely impervious to small arms and machine gunfire. Nothing short of a rocket-propelled grenade or dedicated anti-tank weapon, like a recoilless rifle, was going to have any effect.

Armed with an American version of the British L7 105 mm gun known as the M68 in US service, the tank carried probably the finest tank gun ever made at the time and one which remains in service to this day. Coaxial armament was a 7.62 mm M73 machine gun and, on top of the primary turret, was a small cast turret for the commander with a .50 caliber M2 machine gun. Production of the original M60 ceased in 1962, with the adoption of the improved model known as the M60A1. Powered by a Continental AVDS-1790-2A petrol engine delivering 750 hp, the 47.6 tonne M60A1 was capable of 48 km/h (30 mph) on a road.

From 1977, the M60A1 was receiving a new major upgrade in the form of new sights and a deep wading kit, as part of the M60A1(Rise)(Passive) modification. The most noticeable part of the deep wading kit is the exhaust extension which attached to the rear right grille on the engine bay. This wading kit allowed the tank to cross waterways up to 4.6 m (15 feet) deep at a speed of up to 14.5 km/h (9 mph).

M60 prototype No.4 showing the deep wading kit in place and supported by stays to the engine deck.
Source: Hunnicutt
Deep wading parts for the M60.
Source: Hunnicutt
USMC M60A1 seen at Beirut, Lebanon, showing the deep fording exhaust in the fully erect position.
Source: US National Archives
M60A1 tanks belonging to the USMC. The use of heavy armor in the invasion was a significant intimidation factor for any opposition forces, which had few options to try and counter. Source: Pinterest
An M60A1 belonging to the USMC provides a backdrop for three detained men. Note the bottom part of the raised exhaust stack from the rear of the tank and the other part of it stowed on the right side of the turret.
Source: Toronto Public Library
USMC M60A1 in Grenada. The crew relaxes, although they wear their body armor just in case. Note the exhaust modification on the right exhaust grille even though the upper part of the stack has been removed.
Source: Toronto Public Library
USMC M60A1 seen in Grenada. It is hard to tell who is least interested in the invasion – the boy playing football or the tank crew. The raised exhaust stack is still in place.
Source: Pintrest
With little to do, the crew of this USMC M60A1 relaxes with the locals. The absence of body armor suggests this is after hostilities have ceased.
Source: Christian Sungit on Pinterest
An even more relaxed crew in tee-shirts and ambivalent about the civilians wandering around, sat atop their M60A1 providing a good view of the camouflage pattern employed on USMC vehicles.
Source: Bettmann via Getty
Blurry shot of a USMC M60A1 with a relaxed but fully dressed crew as a TV cameraman wanders past. This would date the image to not earlier than 27th October, when the press were finally allowed onto the Island by the US military. The man in the cap closest to the camera is General Vessey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Source: US National Archives.
Very unusual aerial view of a USMC M60A1 on Grenada at a road junction by the beach. Three M151 Jeeps can also be seen.
Source: Christian Sungit on Pinterest

The LVTP-7, or Landing Vehicle Tracked Personnel 7, was often just known as an Amtrack or just ‘Track’. It was the primary means of getting Marines to shore during an assault. Known officially as the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV), it was exactly that, a tracked fully amphibious armored personnel carrier. Entering service in the early 1970s, the LVTP-7 was a hefty 29 tonne in weight, but could manage up to 72 km/h (45 mph) on a road and up to 13.2 km/h (8.2 mph) in the water courtesy of a Detroit Diesel 8V-53T 400 hp diesel engine.

Protection for the men inside, 3 crew and up to 20 troops, was provided by 45 mm of aluminum, meaning that it too was proof against small arms fire. The armament was modest, with just a single .50 calibre M2 heavy machine gun.

Captured Soviet-supplied BRDM-2 of the PRA with a USMC LVTP-7 seen behind it.
Source: US National Archives.
USMC LVTP-7 landed on Grenada at the Queen’s Racecourse landing ground, with a somewhat unexcited crew. Despite some appearance to the contrary, US and Caribbean forces arriving on Grenada were mostly a welcome sight and marked the end of months of chaos. Note the pintle-mounted M60 machine gun.
Source: US National Archives.
US forces rounded up PRA and suspected members of the PRA around the Queen’s Racecourse, St. Georges. Two M151 Jeeps can be seen, with one mounting a .50 caliber machine gun and the other with the canvas tilt in place. Unusually, the soldier closest to the camera is not wearing a helmet.
Source: Christopher Grey, USMC via USMC

At 1000 hours, the Governor-General, his wife and 22 special operations personnel (all but one of whom had been wounded) were evacuated by helicopter from Government House to the USS Gaum. Two hours later, Sir Paul Scoon was returned to Point Salinas at his request until St. George’s could be liberated and he could start to assist in the transition from the anarchy of the invasion to a semblance of law and order. By this time, those Marines of G Company were in a lengthy firefight with the troops defending Fort Frederick. Realizing they were going to be surrounded and annihilated, the PRA commander and men wisely fled, leaving the Marines another victory to their tally for operations on the island.

Sir Paul Scoon, Governor-General of Grenada. Source:

With the success of the Marines at Fort Frederick and recovery of the Governor, the end was in sight, but there were still a large number of students unaccounted for more than 24 hours into the invasion. They were believed to be held at the campus at Grand Anse. In the advance on Grand Anse Campus, the force encountered fierce resistance from Cubans at Frequente, just one mile north of True Blue Campus. More enemy forces were detected at Grand Anse Campus and the advance halted for a rethink by Gen. Schwarzkopf.

The result of this rethink was a helicopter landing by Rangers using Marine helicopters to drop the men at Grand Anse and a redrawing of the tactical boundaries between the Marines and Rangers to reflect this new area of operations. Troops from the 82nd Airborne were now to be used to take the beach at Grand Anse, supported by a helicopter assault by Rangers carried in CH-46s.

Finally, there had been a realization that the assumption that this tiny island, with its ‘third rate’ force, would just give up and go home was a false one. It was tougher than it looked and, finally, with a ground commander in the form of General Schwarzkopf accepting that inadequate preparations were costly in time and lives, a proper operation was going to happen at Grand Anse. Rangers would come in via CH-46s to seize the campus following an extensive bombardment of PRA positions from A-7 Corsairs, AH-1C helicopters, an AC-130 gunship, and naval gunfire.

At 1600 hours, 26th October, after a suitable pummelling of PRA positions, the Rangers were dropped at the campus at Grand Anse by 6 Marine Corps Sea Knight helicopters and into a 30-minute firefight. Resistance was continuous but relatively light and, although some minor injuries were suffered amongst the Rangers and Marines, no one was killed. Some 224 medical students were then evacuated by CH-53 helicopters and US forces now learned of yet another campus with students to rescue – this time at Lance aux Epines, east of Point Salinas. The only casualty of the entire operation on the American side was a single CH-46 Sea Knight which had been hit by small arms fire. It had to be abandoned when the rotor clipped a tree and the crew evacuated by sea. All told, a properly planned operation with adequate resources had proven a success, with all of the students evacuated and no casualties.

Photographed a few days after the assault, the CH-46 Sea Knight of HMM-261 on the beach at Grand Anse. It had been hit by small arms fire but was lost when the rotors clipped a tree, making it unflyable. Abandoned, the crew escaped offshore in a liferaft unhurt.
Source: Pintrest and respectively

By this time, the Rangers and Marines were utterly exhausted, after nearly two days of continuing operations and unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Grenadians and Cubans. This exhaustion was compounded by a logistics failure where they had been landed without enough food and water, as soldiers discarded rations for ammunition and misunderstood the need for water in combat on a tropical island. This only got worse when prisoners were taken and had to be fed and watered as well, meaning supplies had to be flown in. It was not much better for the Marines. They might not have had to carry as many supplies as the Army did, but the vehicles needed fuel and, between them and the fuel needed for aircraft, there was a distinct shortage.

This was not helped by the inability to refuel Army helicopters on Naval craft because the nozzles would allegedly not fit and fuel had to be flown in and landed in collapsible bladders. This was not even the acme of inter-service issues and, in one example, when Army helicopters of 160th Aviation Battalion did land on the USS Gaum, the Naval Comptroller in Washington ordered the ship not to refuel them due to the costs coming out of the Naval budget. Such a petty and pointless bureaucratic hurdle could have crippled helicopter operations and, perhaps thankfully for the whole venture, General Schwarzkopf broke out the common sense cane and ordered them to be refueled despite the orders to the contrary.

Two more battalions of men from the 82nd Airborne were requested to bolster US forces and provide enough for some break from operations for both Rangers and Marines. These men arrived at 2217 hours at Point Salinas, meaning, by now, more than 5,000 US airborne troops were in Grenada on top of the Marines and SEALs.

Despite having lost the capital, the airfield, and the strongholds at Forts Frederick and Rupert, resistance was still in effect through the night of the 26th and into the 27th. Marines from G Company in St. George’ patrolling in a Jeep that night managed to locate another PRA BTR-60PB. They engaged the vehicle with 66 mm LAWs and knocked it out. This marked the fifth and final BTR-60PB to be knocked out or otherwise abandoned under fire from American forces.

A combined Army and Marine Corps patrol in St. Georges. Whilst the Marines get to patrol in the kitted-out M151 Jeep they brought with them, the Army (background) are left to use a captured Soviet UAZ-469B Staff Car. Source: US National Archives
A slightly damaged Soviet-made UAZ-469B captured in Grenada.
Source: US National Archives.

The Marines had continued to move out from St. George’s, suppressing any sniper activity, as had the Airborne troops in the south as they moved to the east across the tip of the island. They were slowed both by anticipation of strong resistance from Grenadian and Cuban forces, but also by two problems of their own making. The first was damage to Point Salinas airfield slowing down the supply deliveries and the second was the failure of radio communications between the Army and Navy. This latter issue meant that no fire support could be delivered by Naval gunfire, as the Army could not talk to them, so instead had to call Fort Bragg and ask them to convey the fire mission for them.

As resistance was progressively squashed, it was apparent that the barracks at Calivigny was still not in American hands, despite being a priority in both of the original plans. The attack on the barracks was conducted at 1750 hours on the 27th by Rangers landed via UH-160 Black Hawk helicopters and preceded by naval gunfire. Opposing them were just 8-10 men who had actually moved from the barracks to a ridgeline overlooking it.

A captured Soviet-built GAZ-66 truck. Despite looking rather clean, it appears to have had a lot of use judging by the tire wear and that it has had to be wheel-chocked in place.
Source: US National Archives.

The fight which followed lasted until 2100 hours and left one helicopter pilot shot and wounded and three helicopters damaged (two from crashing into each other, and a third which crashed trying to avoid the other two) but the barracks in the hands of the Rangers.

In yet another incident of poor interoperable communications between the Army and Navy, there was a serious blue-on-blue incident just east of Frequente. This had been the scene of fierce fighting on the 25th and sniping was still being experienced by US forces on the 27th in the area of a small sugar mill. An Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company team called in an airstrike to deal with this sniper, but was unable to coordinate this strike with the 2nd Brigade Fire Support Element on the ground and it was 2nd Brigade Command Post which was nearby. The A-7 Corsairs delivered their fire support but, due to this error, managed to deliver it on the command post rather than on the sniper location. The result was 17 men wounded, 3 of whom seriously. Major combat operations ceased by the end of the 27th, but there was now a very real concern of an insurgency taking place to oust the American invaders.

Indeed, the priority targets of the government, men like General Austin and Bernard Coard, were nowhere to be found and it was necessary to continue a search into the interior of Grenada to locate them and ensure no resistance was being organized by up to ‘500 Cubans’. The 28th of October marked, finally, the purported original goal being accomplished – the final rescue of American students. The campus at Lance aux Epines was reached by men of the 82nd Airborne and 202 US students were located. The 28th, was, however, not the end of combat operations, as concerns over the insurgency meant that a Marine battalion was now to be landed at Tyrrel Bay, Carriacou on 1st November. Scouted beforehand by a SEAL team, this was known as Operation Duke and involved men from G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines USMC, Task Force 124 from the USS Saipan. F Company was brought into Carriacou Island via helicopter at Hillsborough Bay to seize Lauriston Point airstrip.

The landing was conducted at 0530 hours, supported by ground-attack aircraft in the form of 8 A-10 Thunderbolts. The landings, both amphibious and by helicopter, were, however, unopposed and the complete objective was achieved in just 3 hours, leaving 17 PRA troops and some equipment captured, but none of the rumored Cubans organizing an insurgency.

A Marine Corps LVTP-7 driving through Carriacou Island after landing at Tyrrel Bay. Source: Christopher Grey, USMC via USMC
USMC LVTP-7s after landing at Tyrrel Bay, Carriacou Island, Grenada, and during a halt. Note the camouflage tarpaulin loosely fastened to the front and that all the men are wearing a mix of the PASGT vest and M1 Steel Helmet rather than the PASGT helmet.
Source: US National Archives
A pair of USMC LVTP-7s in a rather relaxed situation with civilians, possibly journalists, wandering around, suggesting this was taken after the end of hostilities. The photo is likely taken on the island of Carriacou.
Source: Peter Leabo.

All combat operations for the original operation were completed at 1500 hours, 2nd November, and US forces were progressively withdrawn as stability was put in the hands of the OECS forces. The last US forces left on 12th December. On 10th November, all military troops who took part in Operation Urgent Fury were made eligible to receive the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.

Abandoned Soviet-built truck at Point Salinas airfield. The aircraft in the background is a C-151B Starlifter.
Source: US National Archives
A captured truck in use by members of the Eastern Caribbean Defence Force moves a number of PRA prisoners on the island during the final phases of stabilisation after the invasion.
Source: US National Archives

This Soviet-made BTR-60PB was recovered intact at Port Salinas airport. It was shipped back to the United States for examination.
Source: US National Archives

Interior of the BTR-60PB showing the almost new condition inside. This was to be the first BTR-60PB obtained by the USA and provided valuable intelligence.
Source: US National Archives
The same BTR-60PB being hoisted onto a US ship for transit back to the United States.
Source: Pinterest

The Costs

In terms of combat-related casualties, the US suffered 19 dead, 116 wounded, and 28 non-combat-related injuries. Of the Cubans on the island, 25 were dead, 59 wounded and 638 taken into custody. A number of other nationals of ‘unfriendly’ nations were also detained, including some East Germans, Bulgarians, Soviets, and North Koreans.

For the Grenadian forces, both PRA and any PRM forces, some 45 had been killed and another 358 wounded. Twenty-four civilians also perished in the invasion between stray bullets and the mistaken airstrike on the mental hospital.

There was a political price for the invasion too. The Soviet Union was generally uninterested in the whole affair and happily recognized the established government under Sir Paul Scoon without issue, but it was the Allies that had been more irked. Canada had already arranged a peaceful evacuation of its own citizens from Grenada and was more than a little concerned that what was seen as a reckless endeavor by the Americans putting them at risk.

The British Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, was in an even worse position. Just a year after the successful British operation, supported by Reagan, to retake their own islands from an Argentine invasion, the good will had been destroyed in the eyes of many. Thatcher was described in unflattering terms as being a poodle to Reagan and there were calls in the House of Commons for the British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe to resign. Of both domestic and strategic importance for the UK was how that somewhat unilateral American action might affect Thatcher’s decision about allowing British soil to be a base for US cruise missiles. It also had put a large number of British citizens at risk of being killed, as well as being the invasion of a member of the British Commonwealth.

In the aftermath of the invasion, CIA translations of captured documents showed no less than five agreements between the Bishop Government and the Soviets and Cuba about providing military aid. Much was made of this for political reasons to post-fact justify the invasion as a ‘we told you so’, but the total of the aid involved was just US$30.5 m and covered relatively minor military supplies, like rifles and uniforms, with the most serious items being anti-aircraft guns.

“There is no getting around the fact that the United States and its Caribbean allies have committed an act of aggression against Grenada. They are in breach of international law and the Charter of the United Nations”
Dennis Healey MP (Deputy Leader of the Labour Party –
the opposition) to Parliament 26th October 1983

In an accounting post-war provided to the US Congress by General George Crist (USMC), the totality of arms captured on Grenda was 158 sub-machine guns, 68 grenade launchers, 1,241 AK47 rifles, 1,339 Mod.52 rifles, 1,935 Mosin Nagant carbines, 506 Enfield rifles, and a few hundred miscellaneous pistols, flare guns, air weapons, and shotguns. Heavy-weapon wise, there were just 5 M-53 quadruple 12.7 mm AA guns, 16 ZSU-23-2 AA guns, 3 PKT tank machine guns, 23 PLK heavy machine guns, 20 82 mm mortars, 7 RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, and 9 M20-type (Chinese copies) 75 mm recoilless rifles.

Lots of attention was paid to these stocks of Soviet and Cuban supplied arms found in the warehouse.
Source: Pinterest
Some of the Cuban and Soviet-supplied ammunition along with a Chinese copy of the American M20 75 mm recoilless rifle known as the Type 52, exported from China to Cuba and then on to Grenada, recovered at Point Salinas.
Source: Pinterest

That was smoke and mirrors to deflect from a poorly planned and poorly executed operation. Notwithstanding some rapid and innovative command decisions on the ground, the whole thing was a mess. Reagan was also to pay a price, as no concession had been made to allow reporters to see what was going on and the first members of the press did not get to arrive until the 28th. This gap did, however, manage to serve a couple of purposes – firstly, it allowed a false narrative of ‘battalions’ of Cuban regular forces to be propagated to allay in some way the problems of command and control. Secondly, it ensured that only ‘the good bits’ would be seen and that, should things go horribly wrong with numerous civilian casualties, it would not reach the public.

One of the towed 23 mm ZSU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns that proved so deadly for US helicopters during the invasion. Note the mix of clothing on the soldiers, including the Colt M1991 sidearm, M16A1 rifles, and that one man is even wearing Jungle boots. The man nearest the camera is wearing his PASGT vest but does not have it fastened and the man on the far right is not even wearing a combat jacket, let alone body armor, although he does wear the PASGT helmet – the first combat deployment of that item of equipment was during the invasion.
Source: Pinterest

The military operation on Grenada was a success in the sense that it recovered the students and restored a government on the island. It was also a success in that it highlighted serious shortcoming in US military preparedness and joint operations. Reagan got his win in his tropical adventure on the island, but for sure he did not assert the prowess of US military might he may have wished to do. Notwithstanding the efforts of Clint Eastward to portray this as some fight against heavily armed Cuban regular troops, the real story was a mess compounded by shambles and wrapped in disorganization.

In the long run, the arguments over the justification for the invasion faded and the people of Grenada were happy with the outcome in terms of the restoration of law and order and a return to the per-1979 coup state where new democratic elections could be held.

The ‘up-gunned’ BTR-60 PB mock-up seen in action with ‘Cuban’ troops, helpfully in full uniform for the benefit of the audience, no doubt in a scene from Heartbreak Ridge 1986. The vehicle can be clearly identified in another view as only having 4 wheels, making it closer to a BRDM-2 than a BTR-60 PB. The use of scrub and low time it spends on the screen helps to disguise the vehicle from the audience too. Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database
Another view of the vehicle from Heartbreak Ridge 1986. Source: Warner Bros.
Another view of the vehicle, now ‘knocked out’, from Heartbreak Ridge 1986. Source: Warner Bros.
Another of the movie prop vehicle from Heartbreak Ridge 1986. This one is pretending to be a BRDM-2, as it only has 4 wheels rather than 8 on the BTR-60PB.The mock-up appears to have been made using the body from a Cadillac-Gage Commando V-100. Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database



The invasion was put together at short notice, despite the fact that plans should already have been in place. Likewise, the grossly ill-prepared force in terms of things like maps should never have happened. The fact that more American personnel were not killed in the operation is more due to luck than anything else and the hubris of assuming the ‘third rate’ enemy would somehow melt away when the US military showed up can be highlighted as arrogance which cost lives. The real winners of Grenada were the American troops who proved themselves rugged, capable, and flexible when they needed to be, both as regular forces, Marines, and special forces. The US military itself would also benefit in general from a review of the problems and on 22nd May 1984, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Army and Air Force to work on 31 identified warfighting deficiencies. Specific in those were air surveillance, the identification of friendly forces to reduce the chance of friendly fire, and tactical missile systems amongst others. The wider Goldwater Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 was also created in part to learn from the failures identified in the invasion.

In taking the island from this “third rate, lightly armed and poorly trained adversary”, the US had had to bring to bear some 8,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines and had taken over a week in the midst of an uncoordinated attack with inconsistent and often unhelpful air support. Resistance, and in particular the air defense from what was just manually laid ground batteries, had proven particularly effective. The loss of several aircraft damaged and destroyed pay testament to how effective a well-situated anti-aircraft gun could be and how vulnerable an assault overly reliant on delivery of forces by helicopter could be. It was only by luck that none of those C-130 delivering Rangers had been hit or a full helicopter of special forces did not go down. Indeed, the only force to have little trouble was the one that bothered to bring armor in the form of LVTP-7s and tanks. With little they could do to counter these vehicles, the opposition often simply melted away. The lesson should have been that bringing armor on your operation and not relying on light vehicles or helicopters was the way forward, especially for work in an urban area, yet, 10 years later in Mogadishu, Somalia, the US had to relearn that particular lesson again.

The bigger US lesson was a political one. The invasion served as a perfect operation if a distraction was needed from the disaster in Lebanon. It also laid the groundwork for a new and more assertive US foreign policy in the form of the ‘Reagan Doctrine’ in February 1985 which directly impacted other US interventions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the invasion of Panama.


The BTR-60 which had been captured intact on Grenada was recovered to the United States for a technical evaluation. At this time, the BTR-60PB was still a potential front-line adversary vehicle used by the Soviet Union, so capturing a complete one was a rare opportunity to examine it technically. With this intelligence objective achieved, the vehicle was sent to Fort Barret at Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia as a training aide.


The runway at the heart of the American concerns was finished and eventually opened and known as Point Salinas International Airport and also Grenada International Airport. In 2009, the airport was renamed Maurice Bishop International. Bernard Coard survived the invasion and, along with 16 others, was sentenced to death for their part in the coup and murders – sentences later commuted to life in prison. They were released from custody in 2009.

A BTR-60PB, such as the ones used by the Grenadian forces in engaging the American invaders. Note that the Grenadian vehicles did not have a camouflage scheme and were in the standard Soviet green.
The Soviets supplied the Grenadians with just two BRDM-2 reconnaissance vehicles (seen in here in Soviet markings). While the parade white outlines and insignias were missing on the Grenadian vehicles, they would have been finished in a similar green color.
A USMC M60A1 tank, such as the ones that participated in the Invasion of Grenada.
An LVTP-7 of the USMC in an interesting color scheme. This was not far from the ones used on Grenada.


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Cold War British Prototypes


United Kingdom (1956)
Heavy Tank Destroyer – Design only

Cerebos was a project designed by the 7th Tank Technical Officers (T.T.O.) Mechanical and Gunnery AFV design exercise held at the British Royal Armoured Corp (R.A.C.) School of Tank Technology (S.T.T.) in 1956. In the study, the designers were tasked with coming up with a heavy tank destroyer using guided anti-tank missiles as its primary offensive weapon. It had to be able to operate on the front lines of a European conflict, have relative immunity from Soviet guns at combat ranges, and a very high chance of scoring a direct hit and killing any Soviet vehicle of the day.


The concept of a heavy and super-heavy missile vehicle had already been on the minds of British AFV designers for a few years during the early part of the Cold War. The Anti-Tank Guided Missile (A.T.G.M.) was a relatively new technology in an era when tank guns were still relying on ranging machine guns for calculating the distance to the target. The ability to effectively engage a tank at twice the effective range of such a gun and to effectively track and guide the missile to the target was highly desirable. This fact, combined with the huge leaps in armor penetration capabilities from shaped-charge (SC) technologies used in High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) type warheads, especially compared to ‘conventional’ anti-tank ammunition of the period, made many think the era of the conventional armored tank was over. This was simply because, using conventional armor technologies, no tank could hope to survive against HEAT warheads such as the French SS.10, Soviet AT-1 Snapper, and later the Mosquito or Swedish Bantam. In order to stop such weapons, steel armor would need to have been over 500 mm thick, which in turn would have led to impractical machines. One result of this technological shift away from conventional armor was a generation of very lightly armored main battle tanks like the German Leopard. Whilst this shift was recognised early in Western nations, despite projects like the British Conqueror and some American heavy tank/tank destroyer projects, it took longer to be recognised in the Soviet Union, at least in the eyes of the West. Tanks like the IS-3 and T-10 loomed large in the imagination and nightmares of Western planners along with some incorrect assessments of the armor of a new generation of Soviet medium tanks. This meant that new means of countering this Soviet armor were needed.

The debate over the end of the tank has been waged since almost the very beginning of the weapon. For each new anti-tank weapon, a new defense innovation was found and, conversely, for each new step-up in armor, a new weapon to defeat this armor was found. In this way, to a broad extent, the evolution of anti-tank weapons very much reflected the evolution of tank armor. Within this context, there are few evolutionary leaps that were as profound in tank terms as this first decade or so after the end of WW2. The A.T.G.M. had gotten to the point where it was closer to forcing the tank into obscurity than ever before and, were it not for the vast fleets of tanks in Soviet service that remained an active threat forcing NATO to maintain its own significant fleet of tanks, armored warfare may have taken a very different route.

In the meantime, all nations were still churning out regular tanks expected to fight other tanks and so, much like the Second World War, tank destroyers were still being developed and built with the sole aim of breaking up enemy tank formations at long range. For the British, the appearance of heavy Soviet armor and the prospect of large enemy armored formations posed a particular threat. Many of those vehicles were virtually immune to the UK’s best tank-guns then in service and in such large numbers that even if they could match Soviet armor with British firepower they could still be overwhelmed.

There was little the British could do to counter the enormous numerical advantage of the Soviet forces in Europe but there was something which could be done about the guns and this fed into the motivation behind the development of the Royal Ordnance L7 105 mm rifled gun and eventually the L1 120 mm rifled gun too. Despite some heavy Anti-Tank concepts in the UK, the 7th T.T.O. Course opted instead for an A.T.G.M.-based Anti-Tank platform over a gun-based solution. The weaponry for this option consisted of a version of the Malkara missile, and this, it was felt, would provide the offensive power required to counter the Soviet threat. It also provided the additional benefit that the avoidance of a turret allowed all available protection to be focussed on the hull instead and all for less weight than a conventionally armed and armored gun-tank.


This was the context and logic behind the Cerebos, a turretless guided-missile tank destroyer with heavy armor. It was intended to operate on the front lines, have enough protection to withstand strikes from enemy tanks using conventional guns, and ideally use the chassis of a vehicle already in service as a platform. It was desired to have a missile able to destroy the heaviest Soviet vehicles then known in service or considered to potentially enter service. An ideal rate of fire of four rounds per minute was requested, with a minimum of two rounds per minute, with two missiles ready to fire at any time.

The model of Cerebos shows a well-shaped front which was heavily armored and the vertical launching pods for the missiles. The missile shown on the ‘stick’ is merely illustrative as they were launched internally and vertically not from this elevated position.


The goal was to reuse, as far as possible, the hull of an existing vehicle and Cerebos did just that and was based around a heavily modified Centurion tank. This meant a high degree of commonality of parts between Cerebos and the standard battle tank of the British Army of the day, which would reduce the logistical burden of the vehicle. The modifications, though, were extensive. Instead of the sloped glacis of the Centurion, Cerebos used a steeply angled ‘pike’ type nose, similar in style to that on the Soviet IS-3 tank. The driver sat along the centreline of the tank with a forward observation window cut directly out of the armor. The commander sat directly behind him, and the loader sat even further back on a swivel chair that allowed him the freedom of movement to assemble the missiles.

The missile bin had to be as equally protected as the vehicle itself and yet maintain a potential 360° arc of fire. This was somewhat problematic, as adding a conventional missile rack on the top of the vehicle would add not only excessive weight but would also result in a large and conspicuous target that would be vulnerable to small arms fire, shell splinters, etc. It would also be heavy, requiring dedicated hydraulics just to operate. To overcome these issues, the designers had the missile bins located inside the hull of the vehicle in a vertical arrangement, with 5 additional missiles stowed vertically running alongside the left and right sides of the inner hull. On firing the missile, the silo roof would fold open in two triangular parts. The weapon was then fired and guided on to its target by the commander. Once the missile was away, a new one was selected and attached to what amounts to a ‘potter’s wheel’ type base. This base rotated 360 degrees in the missile chamber, with the four fins being added from a separate supply located in front of each missile. This might seem odd as an idea, but the fins were the part of the missile which increased their storage volume and this semi-assembly of the missile attaching the fins meant that a larger number of missiles could be stowed inside the tank.


Cerebos was based on the Centurion but it was better protected from enemy fire than the Centurion. Sporting heavy frontal armor with a glacis plate 120 mm thick angled back at 65° and a lower front plate 120 mm thick angled at 55°, the Cerebos was felt to be well-enough protected to be able to take any reasonable enemy fire which might be forthcoming from the Soviet tanks of the day. In more conventional UK armor terms, the sides were still quite weak though, with just 25 mm on the upper sides (at 8°) tapering to 20 mm (at 10°) on the lower hull sides. The roof and rear were 25 mm thick, just enough for protection from small arms fire and shell bursts. The belly plate, just 20 mm thick, was sufficient to provide some protection from landmines but the focus of armor was on the front, facing the enemy, making the best use of the weight allowance available for maximum effect.


Power for Cerebos was provided by a 9-liter Jaguar 90° V8 petrol engine delivering 350 b.h.p. at 3,750 rpm connected via a Merritt Brown 6-speed (4 forward and 2 reverse) gearbox. Drive was delivered, just like the Centurion – to the rear sprockets. This engine was expected to permit the 21-ton (21.3 tonnes) Cerebos to achieve a top speed of 28 mph (45 km/h) and operate for a maximum range of 220 km at 14 mph (22.5 km/h).


The primary armament proposed for Cerebos was a Manual Command to Line-Of-Sight (M.C.L.O.S.) type anti-tank missile that looked somewhat like a slightly smaller and sleeker Malkara missile, measuring 5 ft. (1.5 m) long and 10 inches (254 mm) in diameter. Unlike the High Explosive Squash Head (H.E.S.H.) warhead on the Malkara, this 20 lb. (9 kg) warhead was a shaped charge High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) type. The total missile weight was expected to be 85 lb (38.5 kg) and these would be launched vertically from within the missile tube. Once assembled with its fins, it was ready for launching and this could be done whilst a missile was already underway as the targeting was being carried out by the commander with missile assembly taking place independently.

A pair of launchers and 12 missiles (two already assembled and ready to fire, with another ten stowed) could be carried. Although no performance data for these missiles was given, it can be estimated from the diameter of the warhead and the performance of contemporary missiles to achieve a penetration of approximately five times its diameter, which would equal about 750 mm of armor plate – more than sufficient to defeat any known Soviet tank in service at the time.

The maximum range for the missile was just as impressive as the anti-armor performance expected – far exceeding the range available from a conventional tank gun. Cerebos was to be able to engage targets at ranges of up to 6,000 yards (5.4 km), although the missiles did have a minimum safe distance as well – 500 yards (460 meters). With a flight-speed of 350 feet per second (107 m/s), the missiles had a potential maximum flight time of about 50 seconds. For ease of stowage, the missiles were kept without their fins. The gunner would have to assemble the bare missile, attach the fins individually by means of the snap-on fasteners and then load a missile into the missile bin. This whole process was estimated to take not more than 2 minutes per missile. This would mean (assuming two were already loaded) that up to 4 missiles could be fired in a 4-minute window.

Secondary armament for Cerebos was primarily for self-defense and consisted of a single Browning .30 caliber (7.62 mm) machine gun remotely operated from within the hull with a 360° degree arc of fire and provided with 4,250 rounds of ammunition. Six No.36 smoke dischargers were provided, with 3 per-side, and the crew was provided with grenades and small arms.

Side view of Cerebos showing the 5 unassembled fin-less missiles on one side of the compartment. Another 5 were along the right-hand side as well. With two in the bay ready to go, Cerebos had 12 missiles. Note the curvature at the front is unintentional and merely a result of the curvature of the original paper on which the plan was printed and bound.


For its time and era, the wings being clipped on was nothing new and this type of missile-build-before-launch concept was also to be added into the FV4010 heavy missile vehicle, as the later fold out missiles and overall lighter materials were still some years away. Two flaws not raised in the original documentation but more observable with hindsight are the lack of a telescopic mast or periscope allowing firing from the reverse side of slopes and the poorly placed second cupola that had much of its view blocked by being located behind the first. Other issues are the commander acting as the missile gunner, guiding it to its target, placing undue stress, and preventing him from monitoring the battlefield. The Cerebos was no more than a design project and never built, however, many of the ideas and features later appeared on the Malkara launching FV4010.

The Cerebos heavy missile tank destroyer. The vehicle is in travel mode, with the missiles safely within the hull. Notice the very heavily sloped pike-shaped front. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Bovington Tank Museum Archives, STT section, Cerebos box

Cerebos Specifications

Dimensions (L-W-h) 21ft 5.5 inches x 9ft 10 inches x 8ft 4 inches (6.53 x 3.00 x 2.54 m)
Crew 3 (commander/gunner, driver, loader)
Propulsion Jaguar 9 liter 90° V8, 350 bhp
Speed (road) 28 mph (45 km/h)
Ground Clearance 17 inches (0.43 m)
Track Center Distance 8 ft. 4 inches (2.54 m)
Length of Track on Ground 14 ft. 7 inches (4.45 m)
Normal ground pressure 8.4 psi (57.92 kPa)
L/C ratio 1.75
Vertical obstacle crossed 3ft 8 inches (1.12 m)
Gap crossed 7ft (2.13 m)
Armament Manual Command to Line-Of-Sight (MCLOS) ATGM
0.3/7.62 mm MG
Maximum, Minimum Missile Range 6000 yards/5.4 km, 500 yards/457 meters
Missile Velocity 350 fps (107 m/s)
Ammunition 12 High Explosive Anti Tank Missiles
Armor Front: 120 mm @ 65 degrees
Sides: 25-20 mm
Rear 25 mm
Bottom 20 mm