In considering tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, there is usually a relatively straightforward choice of two means of propulsion: tracks or wheels, with a general understanding that there are disadvantages and advantages of each type. There are variations of each system and one such concept is the rotating cylinder for traction. This was the option selected by Olavi Mattila in Finland in 1943 for his design. The terrain of Finland and its difficult history of independence perhaps colored this design more than any direct military utility or experience. As it was designed, it was perhaps one of the more unusual ‘wheeled’ vehicles during WW2. It is also one of the few indigenously designed Finnish armored vehicles of the era, even though the design ultimately failed to leave the pages at the Finnish patent office.
Finland, a country in Scandinavia bordering the Baltic Sea to the south and west, shares a lengthy land border with Russia to the west and Norway to the north. A country with under 6 million people today, it had just under 4 million inhabitants in WW2 and that conflict was a complicated situation for the nation.
Fought over for decades in a power play between Sweden and Russia which had ended in a Swedish defeat in 1809, the area remained part of Russia despite a strong and independent cultural identity and attempts to suppress it. With the collapse of Russia starting with the October 1917 Revolution, the whole situation in Finland became complex and the parliament declared independence in December that year, falling into a short civil war. After this, the country stabilized with a strong anti-communist sentiment. Russia next door had become the Soviet Union by this time and relations between the two got progressively worse, leading to the invasion by Soviet forces in what was known as the Winter War of 1939-1940.
A second war between Finland and The Soviet Union started in 1941, known as the Continuation War. Thanks to a mutual enemy in the form of the Soviet Union, the Finns gained considerable support from Nazi Germany, although it was otherwise not part of the Axis powers – a fact confirmed by the Tehran Conference of 1942 which considered the war in Finland as a separate war in its own right.
It is during that war and within that context that, on 12th March 1943, Olavi Mattila, from his apartment in Helsinginkatu, Helsinki, a professional builder by trade, submitted his application. The design was for a novel type of armored vehicle called the Hyökkäysvaunu (English: ‘Assault Wagon’ or archaic ‘Tank’).
The Hyökkäysvaunu was suggested in two forms: a four ‘wheeled’ form operating in the manner of an armored car and a second version. For the purpose of this article, they will be described as ‘Version 1’ – the one with 4 large wheels, and ‘Version 2′ – the one with two large wheels and stabilized by a small trailing wheel.
Version 1: ‘The Knobbly Car’
The first version of the assault wagon machine from Mattila was dominated by a pair of huge ‘wheels’ on each side, with the diameter of the two pairs accounting for ⅔ of the length of the entire vehicle. Between them was a concave-shaped hull, meaning that the large ‘wheels’ would be able to gain purchase on very rough surfaces and whilst climbing obstacles without the hull fouling on them. The second distinctive element of the wheels was the large number of raised nodules from the surface arranged circumferentially. At the center of the rearmost wheel was a dome-shaped projection with a gun, but no such projection was to be found on the center of the front wheel.
The hull dipped across the top in another concave shape and was surmounted by a large turret with a convex roof and sides angling towards the roofline. A large cannon was shown protruding from the front of the turret.
The ‘wheels’ were, in fact, not wheels, but lozenge-shaped when viewed in plan view, with the rounded ends of each lozenge forming the ‘wheels’ at the end. The center of the lozenge was fixed to the hull with a complex fixed locking design but one which allowed the front of the hull to blend seamlessly with the lozenge shape of both the front and rear lozenges. Drive for the design was contained within each lozenge and connected through the hull.
Each lozenge was actually two lozenges, with one inside the other. The outer lozenge rotated around the inner one and, in doing so, the mechanical and human elements inside the inner lozenge remained stationary whilst the outer elements ran over the terrain. In this way, Mattila sought to maximize protection and space. At each end of the lozenge, the inner and outer met and rotated around a circular coupling. Two ends were used, the first to host a ball-mounted weapon, and the other a large entrance hatch.
Cleverly, Mattila had arranged things so only a single type of lozenge drive system needed to be built and then connected together so that one hatch and one gun would be on each side. His design, however, created three split fighting areas. One in each lozenge and one for the turret, with no apparent route between them.
Digitally manipulated images from Mattila’s patent to illustrate the hull and ‘wheel’ elements as being distinct from one another. Source: Finnish Patent FII21290 as modified by the author.
Version 2: ‘The Armored Paint Roller’
With the appearance of a giant paint roller, Version 2 of Mattila’s Assault Wagon was effectively just a single lozenge with a trailing stabilizer. Here, the front lozenge was identical to the front lozenge on Version 1 and connected to the front of the hull in the same way. The primary thing missing from this second version was the turret. This was because the hull did not provide a solid platform between the pairs of lozenges, but instead angled down straight away from the lozenge to a single large stabilizing wheel at the back. This style of large wheel stabilized by a trailing small wheel concept has been used many times in designs, perhaps most famously on the Russian so-called ‘Tsar Tank’.
Using the same type of lozenge idea as the first variant, one end is visible, namely the left. It can clearly be seen that the left of the design was for a large hatch, but it is unknown if the right side was also to match or if it might have mounted a weapon in the same manner as each lozenge on the first variant, but it is likely.
The mechanical propulsion system for the Assault Wagon is shown and described in only the briefest detail, with each lozenge being a self-contained power unit with an engine and transmission. When connected together, such as the first version of the design, this would create a vehicle on which all the ends were driven. Traction on the ground from what were effectively dome-shaped wheels for the lozenge-ends was improved by the use of the knobs on each one. Arranged in 6 to 8 concentric rings radiating from the center of each wheel and circumferentially around the widest part, these knobs would be pressed into the ground as the vehicle moved and improved the traction it could gain. As these rings of knobs continued not only on the exterior of the dome-wheels when it would be operating on hard ground, but also inwards towards the center of the wheel, it meant more of them coming into contact with the ground the deeper it sank. A similar type of idea appeared in 1942 over 8,000 km away, in the USA, with Allison Williams’ design for a four ‘wheeled’ amphibious vehicle. There too would be an idea to maximize contact area on the ground to spread the vehicle’s load when operating on soft ground. Whereas Williams’ idea was amphibious, however, Mattila made no such claim.
The key benefits of Mattila’s idea were threefold. Firstly, the enormous wheels would put down a far larger ground contact area than any regular wheel or even tracks and thus improve cross country performance. In a country with more than its fair share of marshes, boggy ground, heavy snow-covered landscapes, and forests, this was no small benefit.
Secondly, the wheels were also so large as to be impossible to be easily damaged by enemy fire or terrain, such as being ripped off by tree stumps or battlefield debris. Thus, the wheels were more resilient than tracks.
Thirdly and finally, the layout of the fighting chamber within the wheels meant that the traction system also functioned as effective protection for the crew and engine by providing an outer layer of armor around the inner lozenge.
Probably the most notable flaw of Mattila’s design is not the rather ungainly nature of the system with large knobbly wheels. It is the complete lack of any suspension system. From the knobs to the lozenges, there was absolutely no cushioning whatever to protect the occupants inside from the vibrations and shock of movement on any surface, but also from what would be an incredible din over a hard surface like a road.
It can only be surmised that, as shown, the vehicle would have to operate very slowly on any surface to avoid damaging itself or leaving a deafened and crippled crew unable to operate.
An artist’s 3D render of Mattila’s design. Source: via author
Mattila made no specific reference to what sort of gun or guns should go on the first variant of the assault wagon, but clues can be gained from the drawing he submitted. Each lozenge would feature an entrance hatch on one side and a weapons mount on the other. The mount itself was a ball mounting with a long-barrelled weapon inside, presumably a machine gun. On the inside of this weapon space was a small platform on which the gunner would be able to stand. He would, however, be isolated within this lozenge with seemingly only that single hatch as the entry and exit point and no means to access other parts of the vehicle.
Matching him in the second lozenge at the back of the vehicle, the gunner would be on the left of the machine as the lozenge was facing backward. Thus, this second gunner would be able to cover the other side of the vehicle including the hatch for the first lozenge and vice versa.
Finally, was the turret. With the lozenge being relatively small to accommodate and based on his drawing, the turret too would be big enough for just one or, at most, two crew members who would have to operate the main gun as well as provide command for the machine, which would have seriously hampered any fighting power.
Finally, the driver would be located in the center front of the lead lozenge, looking out through a small hatch in the center of the very narrow hull. Given the vehicle was intended to be just as mobile forwards and backward, a second driver would be logically located in the opposite position at the back. Thus, each lozenge would have a crew of at least two men and, with 2 more in the turret, this would make for a crew of 6 (machine gunner x 2, driver x 2, commander, and gunner).
For the second variant, there was no second lozenge and no turret, but at least one crew member was needed to drive the machine, and, assuming this lozenge was built the same way, another crew member would operate the side-mounted machine gun and perhaps command the vehicle.
It is unfortunate that the simplicity of the lozenge in terms of having them reversible to provide coverage equally to both sides of a double lozenge machine was lost on the single lozenge (variant 2) type machine. There is no way for the Variant 2 machine to provide coverage properly fore or aft or across any part of the left hand side of the machine, as it was shown. Even with the double lozenge machine (variant 1), coverage from machine guns around the vehicle would still leave large blind spots at the front and back. It does seem odd that Mattila would not have realized this and mentioned the allowance of providing a weapon in the hull at the front or back to obviate this problem.
Further, there is the issue of the turret. Obviously, having a turret enabled this design to offer all-around fire to the crew, which begs the question of why even bothering with the machine guns in the wheels given the weight and extra problems that would bring. Removing those guns would have concentrated firepower in the turret and allowed for an easier vehicle to control for the commander. It would also have allowed for hatches on both ends of the lozenges to enable crews to escape as well as more space inside for fuel or automotive elements. The turret, as shown, is rather small and, with a large cannon fitted inside, would make operation difficult as well as no clear way of storing an adequate stock of ammunition inside. Once more, ammunition stowage would be the best use for some of that wasted space in one of, or both of the lozenges. The lozenges also caused a problem for the turret as they were so big, so high, and so wide, and they blocked a substantial part of the firing arc of the main gun. Whilst a weapon mounted as drawn would have a good potential range of elevation and depression directly to the sides or front or rear, it would be severely hampered over the corners in each direction.
Was this specific vehicle design likely to see service? The simple answer is no. Like many other patents, the purpose of Mattila was not to design, down to the final nuts and bolts, an armored fighting vehicle. Instead, what he was doing was laying out some design principles on which tanks may be based in either a double-lozenge (variant 1) or single lozenge (variant 2) form. The years between 1943, when the design was filed, and 1946, when it was accepted, were three of the years during which tanks developed the most, with the end of the war, the emergence of the ‘modern’ type of tank and a generation change or two from those at the start of the war in Europe in 1939. In 1946, there was absolutely no chance of a complete revolution in tank design such as that perceived by Mattila. His design went nowhere and was forgotten.
Finnish Patent FI21290, Hyökkäysvaunu, filed 12th March 1943, granted 10th May 1946
Mattila’s Assault Wagon specifications
At least 6 for Variant 1 (machine gunner x 2, driver x 2, commander, and gunner)
At least 2 for variant 2 (commander/gunner, and driver)
Variant 1: cannon in turret plus 2 machine guns
Variant 2: likely a single machine gun
Patents, the government license issued to an inventor or company to commercially protect or exploit an innovation or design, are wide ranging and can be as small as a new way of doing something up to a total rethink of how an existing thing might work. Julien Wieczorek, a Polish national living in France, falls into this latter category. Between 1986 and 2000, he submitted a set of design patents for a completely new tank. That is, a tank not just new in design, but new in philosophy as well. Wieczorek’s designs are from a skilled engineer looking at some of the fundamental problems associated with tank design and finding a way to work around them to produce a new bigger, and better tank. A tank with formidable armament, impenetrable armor, and a level of mobility to surpass any contemporary vehicle in NATO or beyond. His designs were not built but they not only provide an insight into some alternative solutions to the technical limits of current tanks, but perhaps also more widely into the design of modern tanks at the turn of the Cold War, where massed tank combat became less and less likely. At a time when nations were reducing tank numbers or seeking lighter and more ‘flexible’ vehicles, Wieczorek doubled down with a design nearly twice the weight and larger than any other – a true super tank for the 21st century.
Julien Wieczorek left a long catalog of engineering and design work in the patent office, yet is somewhat hard to trace from just those records. What can be discerned from them, however, is that Wieczorek was a Polish citizen who was living in France. His address, provided in British and American patent applications, showed him living in an apartment complex in Les Fougeres A2-36, Avon, which is southeast of Paris.
Wieczorek was clearly a professional engineer rather than the amateur armchair type of inventor. This is evidenced by the fact that he had taken part in one of the submission ideas for the road/rail link between the United Kingdom and France which became the Channel Tunnel. His idea was for a large suspension bridge and barrage-type crossing rather than a tunnel.
Over the years, Wieczorek had turned his mind to all sorts of large civil engineering projects, from commercial ship construction and a modular passenger aircraft (1969), a method of moving a large iron furnace by sea (1970), bringing water to the desert (1974 and 1984), and even plans for a new European capital between Berlin and the Polish border (1999).
On the military side of things, Wieczorek was no less inventive, with ideas for multiple drone fighters controlled from a single aircraft (1977), a huge flying boat which could launch and land fighters as a flying aircraft carrier (1977), a means of creating an artificial island as a military air base (1987), and a dual body helicopter with intersecting blades (1989-1990). Of particular note, however, are three designs from him relating to armored vehicles.
Twin-rotor dual-body helicopter designs, 1990. Source: French Patent FR2659934
The first was filed in October 1986, titled ‘Independent armoured modules for the driver, observer, and gunner for an automatic-loading armoured fighting vehicle’. The patent was granted in April 1988 as French Patent 260509. The second of these was filed as ‘Additional armour units with rocket-launching systems for an armoured fighting vehicle with automatic loading’ in March 1987. The application was granted in September 1988 as French Patent FR2613061. The third design was filed in August 1996 titled ‘Method for constructing, repair, maintenance and transport of heavy armoured fighting vehicles consisting of several modules’. This filing was also approved and a patent was granted in March 2000 as French Patent FR2782789 and European Patent EPO982560. There is significant overlap between all of the ideas in those patents as the idea has evolved in this time.
Spanning a period of not only nearly 14 years but also straddling the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new political situation in the world as a result, the designs are still complementary to each other, with a lot of similarities. As such, looking at these designs together provides a view of the thinking of Wieczorek and ideas which he wanted to build into a new generation of heavy main battle – one which was not only capable of dominating the late Cold War battlefield, but also the new post-Soviet world.
Birth of the EBC 1986
The first two designs are deliberately linked by Wieczorek in his applications, with FR2613061 (March 1987) directly referencing the slightly earlier application which was granted as FR2605095 (October 1986). The vehicle in FR2613061 was, for 1987, certainly ahead of its time in several areas, not least of which was an overall shape of a slab-sided tank which stands apart from its cast steel and rounded predecessors from the 1970’s or before, whether it was the British Chieftain, French AMX-30, or German Leopard 1. In fact, Wieczorek alludes to the inspiration for this new shape as coming from the public unveiling of the new French tank, the replacement for the AMX-30 known as the ‘Leclerc’ at Satory, France in 1987.
This new vehicle was what Wieczorek called an “Engin Blindé de Combat” (English: an armored combat vehicle). Wieczorek has preceded this unveiling with his own submission in October 1986, which was eventually issued as French Patent FR2605095, which was notionally about the separation and individual protection of crew positions within a new autoloaded main battle tank.
Design of the 1986 Patent
The 1986 vehicle is only mentioned as being of a similar size to modern Main Battle Tanks such as the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2. This probably means a length (without gun) of about 10 m, a width of 3.5 m and a height of about 2.5 m.
In the French patent from 1986, Wieczorek is clear that his goal was the creation of a modern tank that used an autoloading system to reduce the crew from 4 men to just 3, as it would no longer require a human loader.
The three crew members would sit in separate armored pods placed in the turret and the hull. The driver would stay in the hull in the 1986 patent, whilst the gunner and commander would stay in the turret in their pods. It is made clear, however, that, although the vehicle is shown with the driver in the front and engine in the back, it was also possible to put the engine and transmission in the front in a manner akin to the Israeli Merkava.
Wieczorek also avoided the common design choice of moving all the crew members into the hull for extra protection, preferring to maintain the observation advantage given by an elevated position. The tank commander would be located on the right, whilst the gunner would be on the left in the turret.
Despite being separated by their individual armored pods and being physically apart within the vehicle, the 1986 patent makes it clear that they would be in communication with each other continuously using both video and the internal radio communications.
The driver seems to have had access to three vision ports mounted on a rounded hatch. It is unclear how this hatch opened and if it would have interfered with the gun or turret. The commander had access to eight vision ports on his cupola, while the gunner on the left had access to four vision ports and a telescopic sight. Of course, these were just tentative placements, as the patent did not concern itself much with such details.
The great advantage of pods, except for the obvious addition of protection, was the supplementary protection of the crew from internal fires, explosions, fire extinguisher gases and NBC threats. It was far easier to insulate just the small pods than the entirety of a fighting compartment.
What Wieczorek seems to pay no mind to is the psychological comfort of the crew. While being in the small confines of a tank with other men in combat is certainly not a calming situation, finding yourself alone closed off in an even smaller space is possibly even less so.
Like other heavy tanks, Wieczorek’s design was planned to be well protected by means of a modern multi-layered arrangement, presumably composite armor. The sides of the vehicle would be covered by very thick side skirts that were connected to the hull over the tracks and to the extended magazine in between the tracks.
Wieczorek also mentions that, should a front-engine arrangement be chosen, the engine itself can help protect from a part of the shrapnel.
To protect against fire, including from fuel, ammunition, or hydraulic fluid, Wieczorek proposed an automatic fire fighting system based on releasing a gas concentration of 5% Freon 1301 (Bromotriflouromethane – CBrF3). This, he postulated was preferable to alternative systems like Halon as it was roughly as toxic as Carbon Dioxide and could only be tolerated by the crew for up to 5 minutes.
Should anything manage to penetrate the outer armor of the tank, or should a fire ensue inside, the crew were protected by their individual pods. Those ‘pods’ were to be made from a composite material involving steel or some other and lighter alloy and Kevlar. This provided protection from shrapnel and fire alike.
Very little is mentioned in the 1986 patent about the automotive components of the engine. The engine and the transmission are at the rear of the vehicle, under a raised engine deck cupola with two large fans for cooling. The air intakes are on the side of the vehicle. It should be noted that the space allocated for the engine and transmission is very small.
However, Wieczorek mentions not only that these components can be moved to the front, but also that it should be possible to mount two engines and two transmissions, one at the front and one at the rear. How wise such a solution is mechanically and space-wise is not discussed by the inventor.
It is not exactly clear where the fuel tanks are supposed to be, although it is possible they were meant to be placed in the floor of the hull.
Suspension and Track
The tank was to be supported on 7 sets of double road wheels on each side. Each pair of wheels was fixed on a common trailing arm. Unusually too for the design, was that the roadwheel pairs were not all the same size. The leading two and rearmost two pairs of wheels were of a larger diameter (750 mm) than the 3 central pairs (600 mm), as this decrease in height allowed for the hull width extensions inside the track run. Making them slightly smaller allowed them to still deflect upwards by up to 200 mm without striking the hull side extensions.
The drive sprocket was to be at the rear, the idler at the front and just two return rollers were used, one on each side of the bulging ammunition compartment.
Although the drawings appear to show torsion bars across the width of the bottom of the hull, this is misleading. Wieczorek determined that torsion bars would not provide suitable suspension across the potential temperature ranges in which the tank was potentially going to operate at, namely -55 C to +60 C, and, therefore, the design would use hydro-pneumatic suspension instead. This system would allow for both manual and automatic adjustment of height, meaning Wieczorek’s design would be able to keep good ground clearance for off-road running and then lower itself in a fighting location to the extent of the hull floor being in contact with the ground. This allowed the vehicle to make itself a smaller target as well as harder to see.
The tank would engage an enemy with its primary armament – an autoloaded 120 mm gun. Ammunition for the main gun was to be either Kinetic Energy (KE) i.e. Armor-Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) or High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT), which Wieczorek called a ‘multi-purpose round’. With an assumed overall weight of 55 tonnes, 40 rounds of these shells at 20 kg each would be just 800 kg, or 1.45 % of the overall mass of the tank. As such, Wieczorek saw that as long as they could be made to fit in the space of a tank, then increasing ammunition storage could increase the firepower of the tank without much of an increase in mass. The plan therefore, was to adopt an 80-round loadout for a total of just 1.6 tonnes / 2.9% of the total mass.
The autoloader speed was estimated to be able to provide 10 to 12 rounds per minute, but far more unusual than the prospective high rate of fire was the layout of the loading system and how Wieczorek amended the hull shape to accommodate it. The problem was going to be where the autoloader would go. If he could make it fit and potentially cram in 80 or more rounds then this tank would be carrying twice or more than its equivalent Western MBTs. His solution was to place the ammunition in the bottom of the hull, in two large circular carousels.
No secondary armament is mentioned in the patent.
As previously mentioned, one of the advantages of carrying more ammunition was less frequent reloading and less exposure outside of the tank by the crew. Wieczorek proposed the use of a semi-trailer to be towed by the EBC and then used to reload the two magazines. The two magazines would be reloaded through the belly of the tank through two intermediary magazines.
Wieczorek was clear even in the first filing in October 1986 that the goal was an autoloaded tank to both increase firepower and also to reduce the number of crew from four to three. In his journey to deciding on an autoloader, he considered the alternative MBT autoloading projects of the time. The Soviets had their own 125 mm autoloader on the T-72 MBT and clearly, in some quarters, it was felt that this gave a firepower edge over Western vehicles. From the USA, Wieczorek looked at the Tank Automotive Command (TACOM) projects to replace the M1, known as the SRV and TTB, both of which used a drum under the turret storing 40 rounds with a rate of fire of 8 rounds per minute. The Leopard 2 120 mm smoothbore autoloader project from the firm Rheinmetall in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) could hold just half of that number of shells, just 20, and these were held in the back of the turret. The British had their own projects with several ideas considered by the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (R.A.R.D.E.) and one from Alvis which loaded an externally mounted gun from an ammunition supply on the back of the tank.
The French too were in the process of finding a replacement for the elderly AMX-30 in the form of the new ‘Leclerc’ MBT and a variety of ideas for what that vehicle would eventually look like had been proposed. Ammunition storage for an autoloader had featured within that work too and had, at one point, even included the same kind of idea as considered by Alvis, with ammunition at the back in a pod for restocking the autoloader.
Mock-up model of the Leclerc with the rear-mounted external ammunition resupply pod concept. pholdeer.com
Storing additional rounds in pods on the back was not going to be a viable solution and was just one of several ideas floated around to bolster the available stock of ammunition. If the ammunition stowage for the autoloader was going to be in the back of the turret, then it was going to be limited by the volume available, although it had the advantage of accommodating the length of a unitary shell well. Nonetheless, not more than 20 or 30 rounds could be carried effectively in this manner and, if there was a move to an even larger calibre gun of say 140 mm, then even fewer could be carried due the width of the shells and the dimensions of the bustle rack. The solution to this was to put the rounds in the hull and this is exactly what the Soviets had done with the carousel-type loader on the T-72. However, herein lies an additional problem – hull width. Unitary 120 mm caliber shells would not be able to fit in a normal type of hull with a carousel autoloader, so even considering 140 mm rounds in such a way was completely out of the question.
The greatest single limiting factor in tank design is not weight, nor speed, or even cost – but width. Width, because most long tank movements are by rail and this means the railguage limits how wide of a load can be transported without fouling on a neighboring track, platforms, or bridges. This is generally around 3 to 3.5 meters in real terms for maximum width and excluding any side armor modules added later. This has been the fundamental maximum width, give or take, since the very first tanks in WW1. When Wieczorek was considering his carousel-type loading system with shells arranged in a circle and pointing inwards, this width restriction was the source of serious problems.
The length of a tank shell, such as a 120 mm NATO APFSDS, is 1 meter. Arranging such full-size shells on a carousel would mean placing them facing each other, doubling that in terms of required width. Even before considering the mechanism of the carousel to rotate it or move the shells to deliver them to the gun, a full 2 meters of the internal width of the tank is taken up. Allowing just 10 cm all around the outside of the carousel (total diameter 2.1 m) for clearance, problems can be plotted out as per Table 1 using a simple theoretical limit of 3 m of width to illustrate the problem.
On a conventional hull, where the sides of the hull do not project through or over the tracks (Table 1 Row a) and where the overall width is 3 m, it has to be factored in that the tracks on each side deduct from this maximum width. A track of even 60 cm width on each side, a little clearance between the hull side (~5 cm) and the track, and then the thickness of the hull sides (~4 cm) means a central internal space of just 162 cm – well short of being able to make a carousel autoloader using unitary shells.
This is one of the reasons why Soviet tanks using a carousel type loader tend to split the shell up into two parts (propellant and shell) and automatically load both parts to form a single shell. That ingenious solution is certainly very clever, but when it comes to an APFSDS round, one of the factors affecting anti-armor performance is the length of the APFSDS rod itself. Generally speaking, longer rods are preferable to shorter ones so, if your shell is split in two pieces, it is inherently harder to get a longer APFSDS rod. The goal, therefore, is to have a unitary shell to keep the APFSDS rod as long as possible. Assuming this was done with a conventionally laid out tank where the tracks and suspension project from the sides of the hull (Table 1 Row b), then the only possible solution is to have very narrow tracks. This is even more acute, as even larger calibre guns with longer unitary shells are considered and clearly, the central width could be made larger, the tracks get substantially narrower, which is limiting on the performance.
Wieczorek’s solution (Table 1 Row c) skipped deftly around this problem. As can be seen from the table, it can retain a track of the same width as the conventional or normally laid out tank and still provide substantial internal width without exceeding the maximum 3 m overall tank width limit. The dimensions for Wieczorkes tank were actually a maximum hull width of 3.42 m and, with the side skirts on, a total width of 4.3 m.
The way this was done was simply to revert to using sponsons – projections from the side of the tank. These projections did not go over the track but actually projected within it, so that the track ran both below and above the projection. In doing so, the tank could increase the maximum available width for a carousel autoloader and fit those unitary rounds. This available width was increased even more by angling the rounds so that they pointed down and thus decreased the effective width taken up. It also meant one more thing for Wieczorek’s design – the ability to create a double stack of such shells and increase the ammunition capacity of the tank.
Wieczorek decided to place the APFSDS and HEAT shells on separate stacks, with the APFSDS in the top one in his drawings. This would then allow for very simple choosing of the next shell to be loaded, making it very easy to keep track of which shell is which. Both the gunner and the commander could select what type of round would be loaded next. These would be loaded into the gun by two ‘robotic’ mechanisms.
1987 – Rocket Armor!
While the 1986 patent set the general tone for Wieczorek’s view of how a modern MBT should look, the 1987 patent came in and added rocket launchers to the vehicle. The grand idea of Wieczorek’s new patent was that his EBC could use the rockets carried inside the sides of the turret and hull to bombard enemy positions before being attacked by massed enemy tanks. The launchers would then remain to act as armor for the tank.
Design of the 1987 Patent
The 1987 patent followed up from the 1986 one, keeping the idea of crew pods for the men in the tank. However, citing critical voices within the army about the reduction of the tank’s crew to 3 men, Wieczorek added another crew member and reshuffled all of their positions.
The only crew member to retain his position was the gunner, remaining on the left side of the turret. He was accompanied by the new crew member, probably placed on the right side of the turret, the observer. What this man’s actual duties within the operation of the tank were supposed to be is not specified. They would be further protected by individual armored pods, creating in effect a semi-turret position for both of them, where most of their bodies would actually be below the turret ring.
The most drastic changes, however, were the placements of the driver and commander. They were moved from their initial positions into the middle of the tank, sandwiched between the turret and engine, in their own protected capsule. While this would arguably have been the safest place in the tank, it would also have provided significant problems with access and, most importantly, emergency exits. They would have to use cameras and displays to see their surroundings, drive and control the tank. It is worth noting that, in several countries, this would also mean his tank would not be legal to use on the road in some countries as the driver would have no ‘eyeball’ view of the road ahead of the vehicle.
This move of the driver into the rear of the tank divided the vehicle into a front unoccupied compartment, a sealed-off armored turret compartment, including the space under the turret (which was used for the loading system), and the two spaces at the rear for the crew compartment and engine/transmission, respectively.
It is said that the best defense is attack and Wieczorek took this to heart with perhaps the least well-considered part of his idea – fitting bombardment rockets to the sides of the turret, the sides of the hull and the hull front. The rocket pod in the front of the hull, whether full or empty, also created a large distance from the outer armor to the crew space, forming a heavily protected frontal aspect made from composite armor with a line of sight thickness of 2 to 3 metres in places. However, this also meant that a large weight would be added to the design and a lot of mostly useless space would be present, space that could far better be used for something else (or removed altogether).
This, Wieczorek felt, would provide protection against the current Soviet 125 mm caliber tank guns and also guns up to 140 mm caliber, which were being hypothesized as potential future tank guns.
Just as the rocket pod in the front added a substantial level of protection, Wieczorek provided for the rest of the tank to be well protected too. The cross-section of the tank from French patent FR2613061 shows not only a heavily reinforced floor to protect from mines, but also a heavily protected turret both on the sides and roof. Not only are the sides of the turret thick, allowing for an arrangement of armor that can make good use of that space, like a spaced or composite array, but the bottom sides of the turret extend out forming a shelf on each side. Onto this shelf was an angled and armored compartment containing the rockets. Regardless of whether the rockets were a good idea or not, the pocketting of this area meant a well-shaped and angled spaced armor layer with a good distance from the sides of the equally well-angled turret sides.
Assuming the rockets were dropped as a poor idea, the basic turret shape, as outlined with these pockets, would allow for space on the sides ideal for stowage of maintenance or crew equipment whilst keeping the outside of the tank clean and uncluttered – something important to provide the vehicle with a small radar signature to help keep it hidden. A similar concept was indeed adopted on the Leclerc, with stowage modules on the turret sides.
Moving vertically downwards from the shelf of the turret side was a trackguard to keep mud from being thrown up onto the deck of the hull. The top run of the track then ran in the gap below this mudguard and the top of the hull side extension. The extension itself was the same width as the outer edge of the turret shelf and is clearly drawn with a double thickness of armor over the projection, providing for additional security of the ammunition which lay directly behind. Moving down the hull side, below the extension, the hull then cut away sharply at an angle down to the belly plate, with the suspension units attached to this inwards angled lower hull side. Not only would angling this lower side add an increased level of protection to direct fire with a sloping surface and increased line of sight thickness, but it also improved the lower hull shape of the tank to provide increased protection from explosions underneath, such as landmines.
On the outside of the hull were the other rocket pods. Formed into long side skirts full of rockets, it actually created a double-thickness side skirt for the tank along its length. It particularly added value to the tank in providing additional coverage over the side extensions with the ammunition in them. However, Wieczorek makes it clear that these pods were optional and would only be fitted to the tank when required to fight from a defensive position. They would have made the tank too wide to be transportable.
Just like the turret sides, if the rockets were dropped, the extensions could be repurposed as large open boxes for stowage or an additional form of armor array. Just as with the turret side rocket pods being hollow boxes on the real Leclerc, here the hollow side skirts could be interpreted as being along the lines of the box-like extensions which ended up on the front of the Leclerc.
In terms of power for this 55 tonne main battle tank, Wieczorek wanted something better than either the Ka-500 series 12 cylinder MTU diesel, as used on the Leopard, or the engine on the Leclerc, which he called the “Suralmo Hyperbar” – a high-pressure gas turbine. Instead, he preferred the idea of a pair of MTU-880 V8 diesel engines combined with an automatic gearbox. Each engine was capable of delivering 1,000 hp and the pair together a total of 2,000 hp. At 55 tonnes this would have meant an incredible 36.4 hp/tonne. Without all of the rockets of dubious practical value, possibly saving another 5 tonnes, it is reasonable to estimate he could have been looking more towards 40 hp/tonne assuming all of the other elements remained viable.
The track itself was made from steel, light metal, or composite materials, such as polyester reinforced with kevlar or glass fiber. It would be fitted with three rubber pads on the outside across the width, with the center pad of those three slightly thicker than the ones on either side. On the inner face of the track, the links were cushioned with kevlar pads. Across the top of the track run, the track would slide along the top of the hull side extensions but was supported at each end by a single return roller. The suspension type was retained though to the 1996 patent application.
Wieczorek planned to use technology to disrupt an attacking enemy tank force starting at ranges beyond those for direct tank fire. This was to be fulfilled by using supplementary rockets. These were not to be just any old rockets either, but were to be a version of the Multi-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) which was at the time in service with the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and Italy when the need was for long-range enemy suppression. Able to inflict damage well beyond tank-gun range, the MLRS rocket modules on the turret sides could deliver high explosive or presumably a load of anti-personnel or anti-tank mines 25 to 35 km away.
Wieczorek did at least hedge his bets with rockets by suggesting alternative and progressively more practical rockets instead of these. These included 120 mm to 150 mm rockets with a 15 km range, an unspecified ‘medium’ sized rocket for ranges up to 10 km, and ‘light’ LL11 40 mm to 60 mm calibre rockets for ranges between 3 and 6 km. Each rocket pod for these LL11 rockets would be able to hold between 15 and 20 rockets each, for a maximum of 30 to 40 rockets in total. These rockets were fitted all over the tank. The MLRS would go on the turret sides, more rockets of a large calibre in the armored side skirts on each side, a pod of light rockets in the front hull, and more within the sides of the turret.
The likelihood of such an idea ever having been adopted, notwithstanding the good parts of his designs, is extremely low as it was just too complex. Adding another complex and heavy weapons system to a tank added nothing which a smaller investment in artillery could not accomplish. Certainly, the idea of the large MLRS rocket and the potential firepower it could add was tempting and Wieczorek speculated that such a system could be added to the sides of the German Leopard 2 or British Challenger tank. It is hard to imagine either wanting to add six of these 4 m long, 300 mm caliber rockets, each weighing 300 kg. Six of them would mean a minimum of 1.8 tonnes, not including any launch pod or control equipment. There was one further rocket module as well, containing between 100 and 200 50 mm to 70 mm calibre rockets in the space in the front, where there would usually be a driver. This would allow Wieczorek vehicle to deliver maximum possible firepower forwards at short range with additional small rockets. This too could simply have been omitted to reduce complexity, cost and weight, or replaced with something more useful, like more fuel to increase range. Had Wieczorek dropped these ideas for at least 2 tonnes of unnecessary encumbrance from the MLRS rockets alone, the weight savings could have been reused elsewhere on the tank or just left off to help reduce the weight. Dropping all ideas for these rocket pods would have simplified the design, made it cheaper, and also substantially lighter.
The final firepower for the tank was a dedicated anti-aircraft gun of either 30 or 40 mm caliber and/or a pod for surface to air (SAM) missiles allowing for self-contained protection from enemy aircraft, including helicopters. This was yet one more thing adding unnecessary complexity and cost to the vehicle for a marginal benefit. These weapons were to be mounted in the back of the turret, as there was space available, having dropped the position of loader.
EBC Redux 1998 – the EBCL
Just a few years on from the original filing, the world had changed enormously, with the end of the Soviet Union and the utter destruction of Iraqi forces during the 1990/91 Gulf War demonstrating the enormous power of the modern MBTs over those even just a little older, like the T-72. Despite the T-72’s autoloader and the lack of such a device on the American M1 and British Challenger tanks deployed against them, it was an incredibly one-sided fight when it came to tank vs tank combat. Even Wieczorek’s consideration of substantially larger tank guns up to 140 mm was not in place and it could be argued that the British 120 mm rifled gun and the German 120 mm smoothbore on the American Abrams were more than adequate to deal with the Iraqi T-72s.
Nonetheless, work on a 140 mm gun had been taking place in Germany (now unified), the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Wieczorek once more submitted for patent, in France and Poland, his idea for an ‘EBC’ – this time, however, the vehicle was larger and heavier with more suitable armament (no rockets). Yet, it was clearly an evolution of his earlier work – a culmination of a decades-long effort by him to create a tank better armed and armored than anything else at the time and suitable for up to 30 years of service.
With this in mind and an appreciation of the several or more years that it can take to get a tank design from drawing board concept to production and the cost of doing so, Wieczorek rightly saw that, for this concept to work, it would have to be adopted widely. This was not just going to be an idea for a giant French tank, but a giant tank that could be mass-produced and used by the members of NATO – grand ideas indeed.
Design of the 1998 Patent
In 1998, with the submission of the evolved EBC now an EBCL, Wieczorek stuck to his ideas of protective pods for the crew although this time all three crew were collated and all three were in the hull, a solution repeated decades later by the Russian T-14 Armata. This would greatly aid intercommunication between the men without the need for a video link although it was at the price of the commander being able to look out of the top of the vehicle.
The previous ideas of individual crew armored pods and of placing some crew members uncomfortably between the turret and the engine were gone. While the drawings show this crew compartment being in the front of the vehicle, Wieczorek mentions that this could have been put the other way around, with the crew in the back and the engine in the front.
In an effort to overcome the loss of awareness from detaching the crew from an elevated position, Wieczorek opted for an elevated observation periscope which could reach between 12 and 30 m high and fitted with a CCTV system and night vision equipment. The idea of a periscope would overcome some of that loss of situational awareness, as well as provide a significantly advantageous ability to see over obstacles or from behind cover. It would also mean that the gun could not be rotated past the periscope, hindering the ability of the tank to engage targets when the periscope was up.
By 1998, these ideas for protection were not seen as being sufficient by Wieczorek, who was conscious of a new generation of Russian guns to surpass the older 125 mm guns, specifically mentioning a new Russian 135 mm smoothbore gun. To increase protection for the EBC, Wieczorek proposed the use of composite armor involving multiple layers of different types of steels, light metals, ceramics, and kevlar to provide roughly four times the protection available from just using traditional steel armor for the same weight. The disadvantage of this new armor was bulk and cost. Heavy protection from use of this new armor would be arrayed across the front of the hull and a similar level of protection across the front of the turret, in modules that could easily be replaced if they became damaged.
In order to provide as thick of an upper front aspect as possible, Wieczorek once more did away with a driver’s hatch. Unlike the 1987 ideas of sticking the driver in the back, now all the crew were in the hull and in the front of it, so he had to come up with a method of access to and from the tank for these men which would not compromise the frontal armor. The solution was to adopt a pair of rectangular belly plates behind the front armor and under the crew space. Additional changes to the 1986/87 concept was the use of Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) on the hull, with special attention to the area between the hull and the turret for this armor.
Even with the crew all together in a pod in the front of the hull, the use of bulky composite-type armor arrays provided a line of sight thickness of armor of between 1,200 and 1,800 mm.
Front aspect of the hull armor, with the Chobham armor array indicated by the ‘30’. Of note is that the floor armor is two layers with a small gap between them. Source: French Patent FR2782789
Two views of the front of the EBT both in 50 to 60 tonne form (solid outline) and 120 to 150 tonne form (dashed outline) showing the closed (left) and open (right) positions for the front hull access hatches. Source: French Patent FR2782789
By the time of the 1998 application, the weight had swollen faster than a cop on night shift near a doughnut shop. Gone was the 55 tonne ‘modest’ EBC, equivalent to other NATO tanks and a little lighter than some, and incoming was this new EBC at a mammoth 120 to 150 tonnes instead. At 120 tonnes, the EBCL would be ‘EBCL 1’ and at 150 tonnes ‘EBCL 2’. At this new weight, the EBC was now an Engin Blindé de Combat Lourds (EBCL) (English: a heavy armored combat vehicle).
By 1998, the firepower, which was seen as adequate in 1987 in the form of a 120 mm smoothbore, was still adequate. However, as he discussed in his earlier patent application, he wanted a bigger gun. Somewhat thankfully, all attempts to clad the EBC as some form of mobile artillery were abandoned and the 1998 design featured no rockets at all.
Although the USA, UK, France, and Germany had all produced versions of a 140 mm smoothbore, the existing NATO tanks were not well suited to fitting them due to size and weight considerations, as well as recoil management. For example, the 120 mm smoothbore, as used on the Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams, had a recoil force of around 80 tonnes – heavier than the tanks themselves. The recoil force from a 140 mm gun would be even more severe and Wieczorek saw that the solution was to effectively take his 1986/87 EBC concept and make it bigger and heavier to accommodate this new generation of bigger tank guns. In his final part of discussion of tank guns, Wieczorek postulated that should his ideas for scaling up a tank to this size take place, then there would be no reason to suppose guns could not go up to 155 mm for the tank or a tank-based howitzer, or even bigger, although even he seems to have sounded skeptical when he suggested 210 mm as a caliber. It has to be considered though just what would warrant such a move to such a huge gun, as no Soviet era or Russian contemporary tank could warrant such an upgrade.
Making the next generation of EBC 120 to 150 tonnes would solve this problem in the sense that there would be more room for the bigger gun and ammunition as well as the new armor weight carried. Wieczorek made no mention of some of the problems with an MBT of that size, like fuel consumption, or whether or not it could cross smaller bridges. He did, however, consider transportation in terms of a road trailer and rail flatcar, and mentions that some contemporary cargo planes can carry 120 tons.
The EBCL was also going to be using shells of at least 140 mm caliber as well as surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) fitted in the turret rear. All of these shells and missiles would be bulky and heavy, meaning that some assistance was going to be required to replenish ammunition. Wieczorek details some assistive measures for ammunition resupply.
The first of these measures is a dedicated resupply vehicle with a manipulator arm. This arm would take the weight of the SAM and lift it to the height of the turret, whereupon the large side armor would hinge forward, revealing a supply port into which the missile could be loaded.
By having a closed-off system for the gun and ammunition to keep it apart from the crew, the vehicle gained valuable protection, but it also meant ammunition resupply by the crew would be difficult. The turret was, afterall, crewless, so there would be no manual loading of shells into the turret to then pass down into the carousel. Instead, Wieczorek solved the problem and substantially reduced the burden on the crew by simply accessing the ammunition supply from the side.
For the new tank, Wieczorek, somewhat confusingly, switches his ammunition types. He sticks to the APFSDS and HEAT shells, but no longer are these unitary rounds. No longer too are these angled downwards and inwards to further reduce the width they take up. Instead, the drawings show the ammunition, once loaded into the side, being two-part with a seperate propellant charge stacked on top of the ammunition part, all on a horizontal carousel. These were to be 140 mm or 155 mm rounds and it is possible he was simply trying to show a semi-artillery type of gun, where the amount of propellant could be varied to vary the range, or that he was trying to simplify the design. Whichever was the case, in doing so, he also removed one of the key advantages of his own design in moving back from unitary rounds. This would lead to a shorter APFSDS penetrator and this would drastically affect anti-armor performance.
The outline drawings of the EBC with the front crew pod from European Patent EP0982560 include dimensions of the vehicle, which reinforces the enlarged dimensions of this 100+ tonne tank. The front crew pod alone was to measure between 3.5 and 3.6 meters long measured from the front of the nose to the back of the module. The top of the hull was calculated to be 2.1 m high and, with the turret, a total height of up 3.65 to 3.8 meters, depending on which version of EBCL was going to be built. Ground clearance was good for a tank as well, with 0.5 m between the ground and the belly plate, which could obviously be reduced by use of the hydro-pneumatic suspension. At the lower end of the weight class ~120 tonnes, the tank (EBCL 1) would have a ground contact length of 7 meters and, at the upper weight ~150 tonnes (EBCL 2), a length of 7.2 meters.
As mentioned previously, it is width – specifically rail width, which is the dominant limiting factor for tank dimensions. When the EBC swelled from the 55-tonne range to that theoretical 120 to 150 tonnes, it did not just get heavier – it got larger too. Too large, in fact, to fit as a standard load on a rail car and awkwardly large for road transport.
Wieczorek did not ignore these issues and simply proposed moving the tank in separate pieces to reduce the individual load, somewhat ironically returning to one of the first problems to plague British tanks in WW1, where they were too wide to fit on rail cars and had to have the sponsons removed.
The solution was perhaps less grand than might be expected. It was simply to break the vehicle down into 3 modules: 1) the front crew module, 2) the central robotic and weapons module including the turret, and 3) the rear automotive module with the engine and transmission.
The American HET (Heavy Equipment Transport) was made by Oshkosh and consisted of the M1070 tractor and M1000 semi-trailer unit. It provided long-range haulage on and off road for US Army equipment, including the M1 Abrams MBT. Weighing in at 41,000 lbs (18.6 tonnes) for the tractor and 50,000 lbs (22.7 tonnes) for the trailer, the HET had a combined unladen mass of 91,000 lbs (41.3 tonnes). Able to haul a maximum load of 140,000 lbs. (63.5 tonnes), the trailer used 5 sets of quadruple wheels for a total of 20 wheels to take the load. With a haulage limit of 63.5 tonnes, this would not be sufficient for Wieczorek’s new heavier tank, but he proposed a vehicle similar to the existing in-service HET, albeit modernized and with an extra axle with 2 wheels each side, for a total of 24 tyres instead of 20.
This was not the only change that would be needed to the HET trailer to move the EBCL. The side skirts on the hull and turret would also have to be removed at times for transport, so Wieczorek proposed a simple crane arm be added to the front of the HET trailer.
For haulage by rail, a special rail car with a lowered central portion and two 4-axle bogies would be used, with the platform suspended between the two bogies, similar to the rail car designed for the German Maus. Much like the HET-type trailers for road transport, Wieczorek saw a relatively simple method for loading the tank onto both road trailers and also railcars. For transport, three HET-type trailers or rail cars would be placed alongside each other and the tank loaded on from the side to straddle all three trailers or cars. The track would be broken and the three modules separated. This method obviously would make loading and unloading tanks (reversing the process) easier where large flat hard surfaces, like car parks (for the HET trailers) or railheads with three parallel lines of track were available. Where they were not, life would have been significantly more difficult.
If the 1986/87 EBC was not a sufficient step-change in design for a tank, then the 1998 EBCL was a leap into a future where a military budget for a giant tank might once again exist. The designer himself, Julien Wieczorek, is a bit of an enigma, leaving a long legacy of well-thought-out and carefully considered patents on a wide variety of civil and military engineering topics.
The EBL from the late 1980s shows a level of out-of-the-box thinking which is extravagant enough to solve that critical problem of a unitary ammunition carousel loader. It was also an idea sufficiently grounded that it is not hard to see it legitimately considered at a time of the Leclerc being prototyped.
The respawning in the post-Cold War of the idea is perhaps less clear in its reasoning. Certainly, before, the prevailing threat to Western Europe was Soviet aggression, so considerations of tanks capable of delivering a level of firepower never seen before on a tank was somewhat understandable. Post Cold War such a tank would be hard to comprehend and although the idea of strapping MLRS rockets to the sides of the turret disappeared, Wieczorek doubled down on his design in other regards. At a time when many nations were scaling back their tank fleets, with the Soviet Union now gone, Wieczorek instead planned for a tank bigger than any other in service, armed with a gun far larger too. The logistical burden of such a huge tank, whether 120 to 150 tonnes in weight, was answered in part by his novel ideas for transporting it on trucks and rail cars in modules. Certainly, the idea of an autoloading 155 mm heavy main battle tank has some appeal, but in drawing it, he also sacrificed the whole point of making the carousel in the first place. With the width issue resolvable by means of module transport, such a complex system would not be needed and why he would then choose to go back to a two-part ammunition system is likewise unclear. If width was solved by just breaking the tank down into 3 parts, why not just make the tank wider and fit it normally without the extensions.
There were other problems too. The periscope for visual assistance would obstruct the turret traverse – something which could have been easily resolved by putting it on the turret. The front crew access hatches reduced the frontal protection of the tank and provided access in a very awkward location – one which in a hull down position with the hydropneumatic suspension employed would actually trap the crew.
Nonetheless, Wieczorek worked hard to come up with realistic, if perhaps impractical ideas and his goal was clear – a big, more powerful and safer tank, and a really thorough consideration of how to reload, move, and operate such a machine. None of his designs came to fruition. The French adopted the Leclerc MBT and no armies in the year 2000 were looking for a 120 tonne, let alone a 150 tonne MBT.
Gourvish, T. (2006). The Official History of Britain and Channel Tunnel. Routledge Press, USA.
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European Patent EPO982560. Method of construction, repair, maintenance and transport of heavy armored combat vehicles in several modules. Filed 27th August 1998, published 1st March 2000.
In the weeks and months following the tank being unleashed on the battlefields of France by the British in September 1916, the tanks generated enormous amounts of public interest and fascination. It was not until November 1916 that photographs were available from which the public could finally understand that some of the descriptions and artistic renderings which had been circulated were wrong.
Even then, the technology of what went into the tank was secret. However, the dominant feature was not the armor or the guns, but the tracks. The USA had no tanks at the time, but it had tracked vehicle makers and, with sales of Holt tractors during the war and persistent commentary of Holt being the machines of which British tanks were based, the publicity for Holt was enormous. Holt was a maker of tractors for agricultural, commercial, and military use. A competitor of Holt was the C. L. Best company in California. They also had a heavy tractor with tracks, just like Holt, and were eager to promote themselves. A new war with armies suddenly wanting tracked vehicles was a potentially very lucrative win and, not wishing to be left out either on the credit as inspiring the British tank or for any forthcoming sales, C. L. Best produced their own ‘tank’. Based on their tractor, this vehicle was one of the first ‘tank-shaped’ objects ever made in the United States. Whilst it was not armored, it is historically important for that reason. The vehicle was not a success but it also has possibly the oldest surviving footage of a US ‘tank’ to its accomplishments as well.
The C. L. Best Tracklayer 75 weighed in at a whopping 28,000 pounds (14 US tons / 12.7 tonnes), making it 1,500 lbs. (680 kg) heavier than the larger and more powerful 120 hp Holt tractor and 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg) heavier than its primary competitor, the Holt 75 (23,000 lbs / 10,432 kg). Shaped in the manner of a tricycle with a single tyreless wheel at the front for steering, a pair of track units at the back for propulsion, and an engine located near the front towards that steering wheel, the layout was common across a number of tractors of the era. It should be noted that the company founder, Clarence Leo Best, owned a patent for elements of this arrangement since 1914, but Holt also owned a series of patents and accused each other of stealing their ideas. A string of litigation and acrimonious lawsuits between them followed.
The Best tractor had started life in 1912 as the C. L. Best 70 hp. Tracklayer, but became the ‘75’ in 1913. Powered by a giant 4 cylinder (independently cast cylinders) ‘valve-in-head’ engine with a bore of 7 ¾” (197 mm) and stroke of 9” (229 mm), it produced 40 drawbar hp at 450 rpm. The Best 75 was capable of 1.5 mph (2.4 km/h) in first gear and 2.375 mph (3.8 km/h) in second gear, along with 1.625 mph (2.6 km/h) in reverse. The fluid-load was 6 Imperial gallons (27.3 liters) of petrol mixed with 66 Imperial gallons ( 300 liters) of paraffin, 7 Imperial gallons (31.8 liters) of oil, and used 27 Imperial gallons (122.7 liters) of water for cooling.
Up until 1916, these tractors were built at the company’s plant at Elmhurst, California, until manufacturing shifted to San Leandro, also in California. Production ceased in 1919 and, by the time of the merger with Holt in the early 1920s, some 734 C. L. Best Tracklayer 70 and 75 tractors had been made.
In the months following the unleashing of the tank in September 1916 and even after the first photographs of it appeared in November that year, numerous imitations were created. Some were simple wooden boxes or frames covered with canvas for use as training aids or for promotional purposes. After all, what better way could there be to promote sales for tracked vehicles than a ‘tank’? The company C. L. Best managed to put together a quick ‘tank’ using one of their tractors. It was made with a large boxy-shaped body surmounted by a large fixed conning tower at about the level of the driving station, which would indicate the men basically sat on the canopy over the tractor, within its wooden walls.
The design was what might be expected from a tractor turned into a ‘tank’ at very short notice. There was no way to turn a vehicle like the Best 75 into a tank to match the images of British tanks which had been released in November 1916. With literally no other tanks from which to take design cues, the result was not much more than a giant box.
Almost childlike in its simplicity, the sides of the body tapered slightly to the roofline and curved out from about halfway up the body to go down over the tops of the tracks. The front had a pronounced step, transitioning from the tapered upper sides towards the front. In this step was a small circular loophole. The front of the vehicle was big and flat, with a large rectangular flat front angled slightly backward, with a large ‘gun’ sticking out. Around the bottom half of the vehicle, across the front, was a simple rounded front extending beyond the front steering wheel.
The roof over the engine section of the tractor was completely flat, with just the two exhausts from the engine sticking out. Behind these was a raised fixed cabin. This had a pair of large rectangular openings in the front and another on each side. In the back of the cab was a circular opening in which another ‘gun’ was located. The rear of the hull sloped down from the roof to a large bulge, the purpose of which is unknown, and thence to the back of the machine.
The location of the cabin was unfortunate, as it was directly behind the exhausts. Any smoke coming from them would not only obscure the view ahead, but also allow fumes inside, to the detriment of the occupants.
Armor and Armament
There is no documentary evidence known discussing the materials used in making the vehicle, but it is a reasonable assumption to suggest a wooden frame and either wood or sheet metal on the outside. The next vehicle from C. L. Best, which followed this one, certainly was not armored (the Tracklayer Best 75) and was made from a simple framework with sheet metal over it. Quick, cheap, light, and simple to arrange, this body would give the appearance of armor with none of the weight. The vehicle was already 14 tons in weight and any armor to cover the vehicle of these enlarged dimensions would add substantially to that.
One thing which is clear from the vehicle, however, is the ‘guns’. They were clearly not just simple wooden or metal tubes or mock-ups, but could also pretend to ‘fire’. A simple black powder charge or something similar would function as a blank to simulate it firing. This can be seen in remarkable footage from British Pathe of the vehicle during exercise in early 1917. However, despite this mock gunfire ability, the vehicle was unarmed.
No written record of how many men it took to crew the vehicle is known, but the vehicle which followed it did have a discussion of crewing. The Day Book of 25th April 1917 revealed that as well as the single driver, presumably sitting in the normal position above the tracks towards the rear on the right-hand side, a pair of ‘lookouts’ were also used. The pair of loopholes on the front of the vehicle could serve as a lookout for the driver, for whom there would be no view of the road ahead. In order to operate the ‘guns’, even during a mock battle, probably another 3 men would have been needed as well.
Use and End
The vehicle did not see much use for exercises. It was clearly a very crude rendition of a ‘tank’ for the purposes of training and disappeared around March 1917. When it reappeared, it had a different form, rounded and rather sleek, with a single fully rotating turret. The vehicle had dubious value as a training tool, being so big, so slow, and so different from real tanks. It went no further than its mock-up and survives today as only a short length of film and a few photographs.
If someone tried to define the term ‘tank’ as a military vehicle, they generally would agree on the need for a turret, armor, and tracks. Whilst there are exceptions to each of these to one degree or another, the only real unifying point across definitions is the use of armor and this raises interesting possibilities, especially for Henry Wallace of Freeport, New York, USA. In 1942, Henry Wallace expanded the idea of what a tank can be to a vehicle with no tracks at all. In fact, Wallace did not even go for wheels for some wheeled tank/armored car, nor did he go the full way towards a legged machine. Instead, Wallace went for perhaps the most unusual method of transportation possible, a vehicle that walked on one leg, pushing what could be named as a tank to a new extreme.
The patent for this odd design came from Henry W. Wallace of Freeport, New York State, USA. He should not be confused with the US Secretary of State for Agriculture of the time with the same name. Freeport, New York, is not a large city but, as of 1940, there were just over twenty thousand people living there according to US Census Data. The only other patent from this man was filed in October 1940 and was for a flexible pen in the shape of a snake wrapped around the wrist. With a relatively common name and few other details to go off, there is insufficient information to be able to reliably identify the designer at this time.
There are inherent problems in a tank design that involve compromises. Whether operating on wheels or tracks, movement is limited to the direction the vehicle faces and a change in direction involves turning or reversing. Protection for the vehicle is concentrated forwards to protect from fire from the front, as it would be too heavy and impractical to add equivalent protection to the sides and especially to the rear. Thus, a conventionally laid out combat vehicle is more vulnerable from the sides and rear than the front. Any turning or change in direction by the vehicle might expose that weakness to an enemy. A vehicle on which all sides are equally armored does not have to worry about the direction of an enemy attack or even turn to face it.
The same is true for armament. With a vehicle carrying a turret armament, it has to be turned to target a specific threat, and, once more, the maximum of protection faces the enemy threat. Armor protection, as both weight and bulk have to be shared between the turret and hull, provides a challenge for a designer as to where to use the armor for optimal value.
With those two primary considerations in mind, the conventional vehicle cannot deliver equal protection and firepower all round – for Wallace, the solution was effectively a simple one. Create a vehicle that was symmetrical in defensive capabilities and offensive alike, and this meant a circular body. This body would make the tank especially valuable in a defensive situation, where it could simply ‘sit’ as a bunker to guard or control an area and then, when the job was done, move on.
The propulsion of such a vehicle could not rely upon tracks or wheels, as it would not be able to change direction quickly enough in the mind of Wallace. Instead, he opted for a single leg which was located in the center of the doughnut-shaped machine. With this, he felt, the tank would be able to “oscillate” to move, with all-round gun positions guaranteeing that firepower constantly faced the enemy. Thus, the vehicle could advance, retreat or move sideways without regard to enemy position or flanking attacks.
With a doughnut-shaped body resembling a pressure cooker or saucepan with a lid, the machine was certainly odd. The ‘handle’ of the lid was a small cabin that could be rotated in any direction and in which sat the driver of the machine, with a view slit for observation.
The rest of the machine was circular, with 6 gun positions located at 60 degrees from each other. Each position had a field of fire of up to 45 degrees to each side, which managed to create small blindspots immediately alongside the vehicle between the guns.
The smooth exterior of the vehicle was broken up by the 6 gun positions, but there would be no sign of the propulsion leg from the outside when the vehicle was ‘sat’ down as a pillbox. The leg itself resided in an octagonal area within the floor of the tank, with its gearing and hydraulic actuators around it to control its position and direction. The extension of the leg, however, was not done hydraulically but using compressed air or, as suggested by Wallace, by means of an explosive expansion of gas. This might have seemed like a good idea for a patent application, but was utterly preposterous for even this rather silly design. The automotive power was to come from a two-stroke fuel-injected diesel engine of an unspecified type. In a lengthy explanation of how the whole system was meant to work, Wallace explained that this explosive method was to work by releasing fuel into the top of the hollow extensible cylinders which formed the leg and that, with a single detonation of a cartridge into this cylinder, the explosive gases from this detonation would rapidly propel the vehicle upwards to get out of trouble or leap into action. Quite what effect this bounding kangaroo leap would have on the occupants is not explained and perhaps was never even considered as a possible issue or concern.
The rest of the internal arrangement within the machine was relatively straightforward. Between the outer walls, with those 6 gun positions, was a raised fighting platform under which ran a lot of the mechanical equipment (such as pumps) to run the machine. The outer skin of the machine was supported at the top and bottom by supporting beams. Despite the size of the machine and the number of men within it, just one hatch is shown in the patent drawing, in the rotating cabin for the driver at the top.
In terms of crew, even assuming just one man per gun (x 6), a driver, and a commander would mean not less than 8 men to reasonably crew this vehicle.
Whilst there have been designs for walking machines before, they usually relied upon continual support by their legs even when not in motion. More than that, they also had to depend on at least 2 legs for bipedal stability or more in motion. Wallace eschewed such ideas or any concept of motion short of brachiation from nature and went instead for a system using one leg. It is obviously not possible to walk on one leg without a hopping motion, but the design did not produce some giant pogo stick type of movement. It instead had an unusual undulating step where the second ‘foot’ would be the vehicle itself.
Consisting of a giant doughnut shape, with the single leg occupying the central recess in the bottom, at rest, the vehicle sat on the ground as a giant round fort or pillbox. During this phase, the leg could move forwards to a position in the direction of movement and then lift the whole vehicle off the ground, bringing it upwards and in the direction of travel. Now having moved a short distance ahead or in any direction, the leg would collapse slowly bringing the vehicle back to rest on the ground. The process would then repeat for as long as may be needed to move from location A to B. At all times whilst sitting on the ground, the leg was completely enclosed by the body and the vehicle provided both maximum firepower and maximum protection in all dimensions simultaneously. Using four large wheels, one on each side of the leg, and an element of rotation within the housing for it, the leg could be prepositioned in any direction in anticipation of a move that would be unknown to anyone outside the machine by observing it.
There are, however, serious problems with this method of motion, not least of which are ground pressure, balance, and speed.
Firstly, with the entire weight of the vehicle concentrated onto just a single point of contact with the ground. As the leg extended hydraulically into the ground to raise the body, it would sink into anything other than a good hard surface. The result would potentially be the leg impaling the ground to an extent that it might not be easily removed. This would be the military equivalent of trying to walk on a beach in high heels. If this sinking happened when the body was off the ground, the result could be disastrous, as moving a point of balance beyond the lip of the foot would result in the machine flailing over.
This brings up the second point of balance. Not only could the machine potentially tip if the ground shifted or leg sank when moving, but this would be magnified as a problem moving on anything other than a flat surface. Whilst the foot itself had a semi-flexible coupling in the manner of an ‘ankle’ connecting it to the base of the leg, the foot allowed for a limited degree of flexibility. Measurements of the vehicle would indicate that it would become unstable past 10 degrees of any slope. This would render the vehicle unable to operate on anything other than ideal flat terrain. Wallace sought to correct this rather obvious deficiency with his idea by stating that it was to use a gyroscopic stabilization device located around the center of gravity and consisting of two oppositional gyroscopes.
The final major problem with the practicalities of the mean of motion for the vehicle is speed. Movement in the chosen direction is limited by the amount of movement available to the foot at the point when the body of the vehicle is on the ground. Moving the foot in the desired direction whilst on the ground (1), as the hydraulics push on the foot, the body gradually lifts off the ground and is righted to a new forward position (2) until reaching full height (3). The tank can remain at any elevation between ground level and (3) for combat, although this would expose the leg to enemy fire. Return to the ground starts from the elevated position (4) down vertically (5) to the new resting position (6), a short distance from point (1). To continue the motion, the leg is moved to the new forward position (7) and the vehicle rises (8) to a new elevation (9) and so on.
One step beyond this slow move-lift-lower means of motion, Wallace drew an even more fanciful one. Here, the leg would do far more than even those rather absurd methods of movement, showing the tank literally jumping.
This slow move-lift-lower process could be sped up to a ‘dragging’ speed whereby only enough pressure need be applied to the foot to raise the body from the ground far enough that the hydraulics for the leg movement could drag it forwards and then return to the body to rest as the foot moves again. It is surely this method that would have been the only practical way of moving the vehicle, although practical is not really applicable to such an implausible design.
Wallace made no mention or estimate of the speed of this system of propulsion, but it was clearly not possible to combine a rapid bounding from the machine with a chance of the crew being in a fighting condition, even assuming the system had worked. The easiest, simplest, safest form of motion, the dragging method, would perhaps at best manage walking pace on a good surface.
As with many other features of this vehicle, little information can be discerned on which to judge the level of protection provided. No information is provided other than to say that protection was implied as being equal in all directions. From the approximate scale of the vehicle, the size of the seat, and space for the crew, the drawing would appear to indicate armor would have to have been metal (presumably steel) and not much more than bulletproof in thickness.
With 6 evenly distributed guns around the outside, it is unclear what sort of firepower Wallace had in mind. An enemy could be engaged at best by just two of the guns at any one time, leaving ⅔ of the firepower idle. Wallace could simply have had a rotating turret with a single large gun or multiple gun mountings, which would have obviated the need for so many crew and guns. Instead, unless the vehicle was totally surrounded, then all of the firepower could never be used at the same time and none of it when moving.
Weakly protected for a static pillbox, poorly protected for such a visible tank, and oddly armored for a fighting vehicle, the design was particularly bad when it came to motion. The single-leg concept, as drawn, was preposterous and unlikely to work even on a flat and hard surface, let alone a modest slope or wet ground. There, this tank would display the mobility of a lawn dart when moving and a house brick at other times, with less potential than either.
What Wallace was trying to secure as intellectual property with this design is clearly the single springing leg concept and a tank of equal protection and firepower. What he actually designed was perhaps one of the least practical, workable, or sensible systems of vehicular motion imaginable.
Trying to imagine what possible use this vehicle might have had to the US military or Allies in 1942, when it was submitted, is even less clear. Today, it can be seen as just one of those ideas from a well-meaning public eager to engage in and/or profit from the war by producing war-winning weapons and ideas. Sadly for Wallace, this was not one of them.
Kingdom of Italy/Great Britain (1929 – 1937)
Breakthrough Tank – 1 built
Great Britain was the first nation to deploy tanks in war. The classic ‘quasi-rhomboid’-shaped tanks were first used on the fields of France in 1916. No history of those vehicles is complete without considering the important role of the Lincolnshire-based firm of William Foster and Co. in their design and construction. Other vehicles from William Foster and Co. in WW1 (1914-1919) included the Medium Mark ‘A’ Whippet tank and the Medium Mark ‘C’ Hornet, but by the end of the war, orders for tanks had dried up. There were too many tanks available and not enough need for them, meaning that much of the skills of this firm were languishing unused or were being diverted towards civilian work. Through the interwar period (1919-1939) and especially into the early 1930s, Great Britain was still considered a world leader in tank design and production, with some highly successful designs and exports from the firm of Vickers in particular. William Foster and Co. had no such orders and were, in fact, out of the tank game almost entirely in this period. That is, until the Kingdom of Italy, a nation rearming after the crushing costs of WW1, was researching various designs with which to build a new tank arm to suit its unique needs. The vehicle designed by William Foster and Co. to meet this Italian requirement owed much to its WW1 forebears, a design for an earlier generation of armored warfare.
Despite designing their own tanks in WW1, most famously the Fiat 2000, Italy had, at the end of the war, simply chosen to adopt a French tank, specifically, the Renault FT. The FT was cheap, simple, and available and compared to the large Fiat 2000, far better suited to the narrow roads and small bridges which characterized the north of Italy. More to the point, it was also going to be easier to transport to Africa to settle Italy’s colonial possessions in North Africa, where a faster tank was needed. as it could simply be carried in the back of a truck whereas the Fiat 2000 could not. The FT, therefore, was the logical choice. It was smaller, lighter, and whilst it did not carry the same firepower as the Fiat’s 65 mm gun and several machine guns, it could actually get its small 37 mm cannon or machine guns where they were needed quickly.
Compared to the 40-tonne, 8-man Fiat 2000, the 7-tonne, 2-man Renault FT was a diminutive vehicle. Lightly armed, carrying either a machine gun or a small cannon, and protected by armor up to 22 mm thick, the FT was a good balance of the need to protect the crew inside from enemy small arms fire and weight. With a top speed of 7 km/h, it was meant to be deployed ahead of the infantry to support their advance, suppress the enemy machine gun positions, etc. It was an ideal compromise for an affordable tank with which Italy could arm itself to overcome many of the problems which had plagued it during WW1.
Built under license in Italy as the Fiat 3000, the Renault FT was, despite minor improvements to the original Renault design, adequate but hardly ideal for the future. It was too slow for anything other than static warfare, too poorly armed to contend with heavily protected positions or enemy tanks, and unable to cope with the needs of a post-war military which, by 1923, now included a revolt in its Libyan possession, where a faster tank was needed.
Given the close political relationship between Italy and Great Britain, as demonstrated by its alliance with them and France in WW1, and given Britain’s pre-eminence in tank technology, it is no surprise that serious consideration was given to examining, buying, and adopting British tanks. There was, of course, a serious catch – very little money.
Post-WW1 Italy was still suffering from a serious financial crisis, as it struggled to manage the costs of the war and reassert control over its former colonies. Any tank they chose, therefore, would have to be either built under license or bought outright.
During this evaluation phase for rearming, which started in 1929, vehicles examined and purchased for testing included the Vickers 6-ton tank (Type B), the Carden-Loyd Mk.V*, and the Carden-Loyd Mk.VI. The Vickers 6-ton tank was valuable in terms of size and potential, but was limited by the twin turrets and machine gun armament. The Mk.V* was inadequate for the needs of the Army, generally lacking firepower and protection, but the Mk.VI was more successful. Small and fast, it could meet the needs for a fast light tank which was easily transportable by truck as well as being maneuverable enough to operate in the Alpine region if needed. That vehicle ended up being license-built in Italy and entered service as the CV.29 (Carro Veloce – Fast Tank Model 1929), but even this successful vehicle was no panacea to the needs of the Army. It simply lacked the firepower the Army needed to support infantry in an assault role capable of knocking out enemy positions. Vickers was not offering anything suitable and, at some point, the firm of William Foster’s became involved. It is not known whether they reached out to the Italians offering to design something or if the Italians reached out to them requesting a design, but, however, it came to pass, this firm was back in the tank-design game once more.
The precise timeline of these events is difficult to tie down for a variety of reasons, not least of which being the fact that the two countries ended up at war with each other in 1940 and the British firm was not advertising that it had been aiding what had become a member of the Axis. The other reason for this lack of clarity is on the Italian end. This was a secret program and one which, in 1940, would have come from a foreign enemy power. To this must be added the enormous loss of archival material and records which took place during the war in Italy, especially after the armistice of 1943, the deleterious effects of time on human memory and the conflicting dates for the project.
“In 1929, the company [Ansaldo] decided to send two engineers to Foster & C. Lincoln, Great Britain, in order to design a new tank without a turret. A metal model 1/10 [scale] was presented in Italy … this tank was designated ‘Carro da Armato Ansaldo 9t’, it was armed with a 65 mm gun in the casemate”
The chief draughtsman (designer) for William Foster and Co., William Rigby (one of the key men behind the British T.O.G. designs of WW2), recounted in 1977 (over 40 years later) that:
“In 1937, Foster designed and built a tank for Italy and I went out to the Grand Cornice to test it. It was not a development of the old tanks, it was something quite new, two Italians came over to the works and the whole thing was put under my control. It was used in the Abyssinian war. Me and my daughter went out to Venice just before this and I took an order for a 2’ 6” [0.76 m] threshing machine for Italy, they are usually 4’ 6” [1.38 m]. Then the Abyssinian war started and we were told that if we didn’t get out soon we’d not be able to, so we left quick.”
The Italian invasion of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) started in spring 1935, which suggests that, as the project for this vehicle started in 1929, it was still undergoing tests in Italy up to around January to February 1935, at least with Mr. Rigby having some involvement or oversight of the project.
Actual construction or assembly, in whole or part, likely took place at the Ansaldo factory in Italy, with construction finished in 1932. It was called ‘Carro armato da 12 tonnellate mod. 32’ (12-tonne tank model 1932) in a 1933 preliminary manual. Unveiled and accepted for trials under the designation ‘Carro armato, 9t’ (9-tonne tank), trials would begin under the direction of Centro di Studi della Motorizazione (English: Centre for the Study of Motorisation)(C.S.M.) in December 1934.
The vehicle had been built and unveiled in 1932. The first tests of this vehicle, designated Carro da 9t M.33 (9-tonne tank Model 1933), were carried out under the supervision of the C.S.M. through December 1934. During trials, however, the vehicle was found to be unsatisfactory. The top speed was just 22.5 km/h, 3 times faster than the Fiat 3000, but still substantially slower than the CV.29 and CV. 33 light tanks, which could manage 40 km/h.
Modifications were therefore demanded in order to increase the speed and improvements were made in the form of a new engine. In order to improve the ride, a new sprung suspension system was fitted as well in 1935. With the new suspension in place, the older side armor plates were modified to make them smaller. This would offset some of the weight gain from the new heavier engine, although it is noteworthy that a partial side armor plate remained running from the section around the front wheel and extended to about halfway back on the tank. It was bolted to the top of the original frame which held the track support rollers.
According to the account of Mr. Rigby, some of this modification work may have been taking place under his supervision or assistance until the Spring of 1935, but this cannot be substantiated from Italian records at this time. Either way, the modification process was slow and it was not until 1935 to 1937 that the work was completed and the vehicle sent back to C.S.M. for a new evaluation. By 1937 then, some 8 years or so had passed from concept to design and testing, and the needs of the Army had rapidly changed during this period. The most obvious difference to the new design from the Carro da 9t was the suspension, but this was not the first or only modification. The first major change to the design was not the tracks nor the suspension, for the old system had still worked. Instead, this change was to the casemate. The original casemate had been narrow and much squarer, forming a tight box in which the men would fight.
When the tank was reworked, the upper front plate was replaced by a new plate, wider at the top, moving from a rectangle to a trapezoid. Two additional sections of armor in a triangular shape were added to the outside of the front of the casemate, so that the sides could remain vertical. These triangles formed an angular connection from the front to the sides. This change substantially widened the fighting space inside the vehicle and produced a more pronounced overhang over the tracks, as well as a wider appearance from the front. The 3 original vertical bolt lines up this upper plate had 7 bolts each. Whilst the number of bolts in each line was the same on the new wider front casemate plate, a fourth vertical column of bolts was added on the front plate, on the far right. This was because the cradle on the inside of the plate which held the gimbal mount for the main gun was bolted in vertical lines. On the original (rectangular) front casemate plate, the right-hand side of this support frame shared bolts through the frame to create the connection with the side casemate plate. When the casemate was widened, the gimbal support frame remained in the same place, but a new row of holes had to be made for where the frame and casemate side plate would attach. The wider fighting compartment, however, ensured that there was now more space in which to operate the main gun. It would also improve the coverage around the front of the vehicle from the machine guns.
With the upper front plate of the casemate widened, it also meant replacing the roof plates to fit the new dimensions and also adding in a pair of triangular plates on each side at the front.
When the suspension was modified doing away with the large side-armor, gone were the old wheels to a new system consisting of two large bogies. Each bogie had three pairs of larger rubber-tired road wheels (connected into parallel pairs with a gap between the pair), with two main pairs connected into a single suspension shoe and the third pair on a separate arm pivoting from the mount for the other two pairs. Connected to the top of this third wheel pair’s arm was a simple flat half-leaf spring system anchored above the two fixed pairs and both bogies had this third wheel pair facing inwards. The design appeared perhaps more complicated than it was but allowed for the ‘fixed’ wheel pairs to rotate about a common pivot on their mounting shoe, whilst being partially sprung. They were followed by the third wheel pair on the sprung arm for even more capacity. With the two sprung arms facing inwards, it concentrated the springing effect of the suspension over the center line of the tank, providing more stability for the fighting compartment. It appears that the lead roadwheel from the old design of suspension, which had been keeping the track from coming back into the suspension in the gap between the lead roadwheel on the ground and idler wheel, had been discarded, but the wheel at the back doing much the same purpose had been retained.
A good view of the new suspension bogies and tensioner wheel can be seen in the prototype 10-tonne tank being evaluated alongside the Carro da 9t at C.S.M. at the same time. What is not clear is whether the suspension was designed for the 10-tonne tank and then duplicated onto the Carro da 9t or vice versa. Either way, Italy had shifted from fixed rollers to a modern spring bogie system. With the Italian Army slowly modernizing at this time, vehicle names were being changed to reflect a new military concept of operations after 9th May 1936, which categorized vehicles slightly differently.
The old CV series ‘Carro Veloce’ (English: Fast tank) series of light tanks were being reclassified as ‘L’ or ‘Leggero’ (English: Light) tanks by dint of their mass, so the CV.3/33 would become the L.3/33, etcetera. As the Carro da 9t was still an experimental tank at this time, it is unclear what official nomenclature would have to say on the matter, as its role was clearly one for assault and breakthrough as a ‘Carro di Rottura’. It had been named (perhaps semi-formally) as the M.33. Even if ‘M.33’ was correct and official, this would have been changed when the vehicle underwent a substantial revision for the second trials, which might suggest a second ‘M’ number. For clarity, however, the vehicle which had started as Carro da 9t is more simply considered in terms of ‘early’ (original with narrow casemate and enclosed suspension), ‘intermediate’ (with widened casemate and original suspension), and ‘late’ (modified) forms. This even allows for the fact that the weight and role had changed.
The weight of the vehicle is also important to note. Giuseppi Rosini, the lead tank designer at Ansaldo, published a paper in 1938 making clear how weight categorization of tanks should be considered. Light tanks would be those 5 tonnes and below, whilst ‘assault tanks’ – those tanks whose role was to break through enemy lines, should be 6 to 8 tonnes in weight, and heavy tanks would have to have at least 40 mm of armor whilst not exceeding 14 – 15 tonnes in weight, all whilst still being as small as possible. The 65 mm gun as fitted to the Carro da 9t was identified as one of the two ideal weapons for a heavily armored vehicle of that weight, along with a 47 mm gun. This would mean that the Carro da 9t occupied an unusual position, being a bit too heavy for the role of a breakthrough tank or ‘Carro di Rottura’ and carrying the armament of a heavy tank, but without the armor needed to be a heavy tank.
The original all-steel track with no rubber pads appears to have been of a pressed and/or welded-type construction. It was characterized by a single hole in the center of each link into which the teeth from the drive sprocket could engage to drive it. When the suspension was reworked, available photographs also show that the track was replaced. Gone was the single hole track link and instead there was a new style of all-steel track link with no rubber pad and which appears to have been cast and which had a pair of sprocket-tooth holes. This would have been necessary to allow a center guide on the link to prevent it from slipping sideways on the new road wheels and also indicates that the drive sprocket was changed from a single ring of teeth to a more modern type with a pair of rings of teeth.
The change in track had a mobility advantage too, as the single horizontal spud on the original track was replaced on the new cast track with an integrated spud, meaning that the track was able to still obtain purchase off-road on soft ground, but also would be less likely to cause damage to a hard or surfaced road, as there was no projecting spud to dig in. Other than these changes, the essential features of the track system remained as before, with it driven by the sprocket at the rear and with the track tensioner at the front on the idler.
The design of the Carro da 9t was relatively simple, although this belies some important features. The basic shape was a giant steep-fronted wedge with a small vertical nose leading to a large angular glacis. A casemate then surmounted this, forming a large 4-sided and roofed fighting compartment that projected over the track. It was narrow at the front and slowly widened as it went backwards. Whilst the front was the width of the hull, the rear was slightly wider. The back of the tank going from this casemate sloped away all the way to the back, after a small step down from the roof. The sloping section was slightly narrowed right at the top before widening out to the width of the hull. In this space at the back of the casemate would be two weapon mounts. Thanks to the sloping rear, these could combine to provide complete machine gun coverage behind the tank.
The entire structure was bolted internally, not riveted, to a steel frame, in much the same manner as a WW1 British tank, except that these bolts could be undone as required to remove plates. Two full-length tracks and the suspension lay behind full height side armor plates along both sides. A single Tritton-patent (Sir William Tritton, – Director of William Foster and Co.) mud-chute was present so that the inside of the track run (covered with armor) would not become clogged with mud. The track itself was exposed all of the way around the track run, with no provision at all for a track guard to prevent mud being thrown up onto the top of the tank, although the sides of the casemate did partially overhang the tracks. In this way, parallels can be drawn between this design and the 1916 design for what became the Medium Mark A ‘Whippet’, where an exposed track run clad in armor and with mud clearance chutes ran along the sides of the tank. On the Medium Mark A ‘Whippet’, there was provision for a canvas mudguard to be fitted, suspended from inverted ‘L’ shaped brackets projecting from the front and rear of the tank on each side. No such provision seems to have been made for this design, but mud would later not be able to cover the side of the casemate, as it projected over the track. The wide part of the casemate actually worked as a mudguard in this way. Behind the casemate, however, mud would still be liable to be thrown up over the grilles, into the side of the raised hull rear and exhausts.
Exhaust from the engine would be vented out of the right and left-hand sides of the rear hull and carried all of the way to the back of the tank, ensuring no fumes could come back into the troop space and interfere with the crew. Atop the casemate was a single large rectangular hatch that slid backward. On the left and right sides of the casemate were large rectangular access hatches. both of which opened forwards and were fitted with ball mounts for machine guns. Finally, on the front face of the casemate was the primary firepower for the design, with a single machine gun ball mount and a large ball mount for a cannon, along with a small rectangular hatch for the driver low down on the front left of the casemate. During the post trials rework, the casemate was expanded and changed shape.
The arrangement of the automotive parts is perhaps the most intriguing part of the design. Instead of this being a manufactured (welded, bolted, or riveted) hull with the engine and gearbox then fitted into the vehicle separately, on this design, the whole package came as one. Two steel girders would run longitudinally along the inside length of the hull from the front, where the driver would sit and operate the vehicle by means of a pair of brake levers. The driver had a simple pair of pedals for his feet and a pair of gear levers for controlling engine speed and the transmission. The engine lay directly in line, a short distance behind the driver, once more attached to this frame, and was connected directly to a mechanical transmission and final drives at the back. Again, all of this was attached to this same framework and this meant that, with the necessary parts of the rear upper armor removed, the entire automotive assembly could, in theory, be removed in one piece. In modern terms, this idea is similar to the ‘powerpack’ on an MBT, where the engine and the transmission are removed as a single piece for ease and speed of maintenance. This is nothing new in the 21st century, but was certainly novel thinking in the 1920s and 1930s. This idea would actually crop up once more from the design team at William Foster years later, with their work on the T.O.G. tanks in 1940, but was otherwise outside of the mainstream of tank designs until after WW2.
The engine originally fitted was a V6 provided by Carraro but was found inadequate during testing. Compared to a fast light tank like the CV.33 which could manage 40 km/h, this machine would be left behind and improvements to the automotive plant were ordered although once more details of the replacement engine are unclear other than that it was a more powerful diesel engine.
Even though the side plates on the tank preclude seeing much of what lay behind, it is clear from the arrangement of the automotive framework that the drive was delivered to the rear of the tank. The track was supported at the top by 3 return rollers hidden by the side armor plates. The weight of the tank was originally to be carried onto the tracks by 8 small road wheels directly under the body of the tank, with two more behind to support the track when the vehicle sank slightly into soft ground and a further wheel in front of the main set of wheels which also served to keep the track in place. In total, 11 wheels ran along the bottom of the track run and, in keeping with William Foster designs, as the vehicle sank into soft ground, more of the track would come into contact with the ground to improve floatation. The effect of this slight upturn meant that only 8 wheels were bearing the weight on a hard surface and the effect is subtle to see in period photographs, but it also provided the advantage of the vehicle being able to ‘slew’ (turn) more easily.
Sadly, the details of any springing system are unclear due to the side plates. With the large void of the mud chute above them, there was no space for vertical springs. Indeed, the arrangement on the original design would appear to indicate that there was no suspension at all other than any cushioning effect from the wheels and track. It is not even clear if the wheels were simple rollers or if they were fitted with some kind of rubber tyre. Either way a fixed system would make sense, given that the Medium Mark A ‘Whippet’ was made in a very similar way with the wheels fixed into Timken bearings. Finally, at the front of the suspension was a British style track tensioner screw – again – in the same manner as that used on the Whippet.
A close examination of the available photographs for the vehicle during development show that the original suspension appears to have been changed from that initial 8 + 2 fixed wheel system to a spring-based system with 9 or possibly 10 wheels all positioned slightly behind a fixing point on the side armor suggesting the side armor point is the end of a pivot for an arm on which the wheels were mounted. That, in turn, suggests the springing system employed was a vertical coiled spring and with tensioning wheels between these suspension road wheels and the idler and sprocket.
At least two crew were needed for the tank, with one man necessary to do all of the driving from his seated position low down in the front left of the tank. His vision was limited to just straight ahead, either through the rectangular hatch or, in combat, with the hatch closed, through a single vision slit in the hatch. No vision slits were provided in the sides of the casemate for the driver, so, for additional information, he would have been dependent upon the commander or other crew members. A single wide vision slit transected the driver’s rectangular hatch in the front so he could see out whilst under fire and a second, smaller slit was provided in the front above the machine gun mount. Additional vision slits were provided in the rest of the casemate above the other ball mounts with the exception of the main gun. A second crew member was the operator for the main gun on the right hand side of the cab. In order to keep the breech clear, for his own safety, or to load, he may have simply had to stand to the left of the gun, approximately in the centre-line of the casemate.
The main gun mount featured a large sighting optic to the left which could be fixed to move with the main gun within the ball mounting. It is likely that there would have been a third crew member who would have been tasked with operating the front machine gun which was likely removable, so it could be used in one of the other mountings as needed. Whether this crewmember or the one with the main gun would be the vehicle commander is unclear, but given the very low visibility for the man on the left, with just three small vision slits, it seems more likely that the main gun operator, with the large moveable optic, was a better choice, even if operating the gun and commanding was not an optimal combination of roles.
The ammunition rack, located on the front right, alongside the driver, was below and forward of the gun breech, which would have made reloading by the commander awkward. It is likely that the second man would act as a loader when not busy with the machine guns or, when static, these would simply be passed to the gunner by the driver.
The commander had no specific optical devices on the roof to assist in observing his surroundings but would have been able to see sideways through the vision slits in the machine gun ball mounts, as well as forward using the telescope on the main gun or by eye through the vision slits. If needed, although hazardous in combat, he would also have been able to observe the enemy out of the roof hatch, although this would also mean he would be unable to operate any of the tank’s weapons at the time. The only available photograph of the tank with a crew also only shows two men, so this appears to confirm the tank had only a crew of two.
Firepower was an important consideration for this tank design, as it would need to not only tackle defensive positions for its breakthrough role, but also enemy infantry. The infantry-killing part of the armament was managed by means of five machine gun ball mounts, with one placed on the upper left side of the casemate, another two in each of the side doors, and two in the rear of the superstructure. No machine gun was mounted on the roof, as was common at the time on Italian tanks. Lacking a turret, the tank also had to rely on the pair of ball mounts in the rear of the casemate, or pull a machine gun from the front or side mount and deploy it out of the roof hatch by hand to cover the rear.
As the sides of the casemate were actually sloping forward slightly, the ball mounts there could deliver limited fire at perhaps as much as 45 degrees to the front as well as across both sides, at the price of a little coverage to the rear.
An ammunition rack for the main gun was provided in the front right of the hull, alongside the driver. It was angled upwards toward the inside to facilitate the shells being retrieved and used by the operator. With a capacity of 35 rounds, the rack was also notable in that it was a metal shielded rack to protect the shells from spall from the armor, but is not fitted with protective doors over the back of the shell casings. Looking inside the original casemate, it is clear as to why it was widened. There was simply insufficient side space available for either the main gun to be rotated to the left, where operation of the breech would be impinged by the sidewall, and for the machine gun on the front left being turned to the right. Space under the crew seating in the back of the casemate would allow for crates of additional ammunition to be carried. Historian Fulvio Miglia places the total ammunition capacity at 80 rounds for the main gun, along with 3,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition although is likely a guestimation based on the dedicated rack and storage space.
The 65 mm gun to be fitted was not, as might have been expected, the 65 mm L.17 Turin Arsenal M.1910/M.1913 mountain gun which had been fitted to the Fiat 2000 a generation earlier, and which was still in service with the Italian Army. In 1926, that gun had been removed from its role as an infantry support gun and passed to the mountain troops due to its compact size and weight. Despite its age, it was still an effective weapon for throwing a high explosive shell out to 6.5 km. That gun remained in service even through WW2 but, at 17 calibers (1.15 m) long, this was not the gun fitted in the Carro da 9t. The surviving drawings for the gun show the weapon to be substantially shorter than 17 calibers. Measuring pixels off the drawing, it is approximately 7 (measured as 6.8) calibers from muzzle to breech. The drawing also shows only a single type of ammunition as a solid shot, which would have been of little use against a fortified position, where an explosive shell was needed.
On the 65 mm L.17 gun, the high explosive shell was supplemented by two types of shaped charge shells, all of which were useful against armored or protected targets, but also an armor-piercing shot as well. That 4.23 kg shell was limited to an effective range of just 500 m and these shells were fired at between 320 and 355 m/s. With a shorter barrel, it could be expected that this 65 mm gun would have an even lower velocity. This would make no difference to the effect of a high explosive shell other than flight time to the target, but would impact the effectiveness of any use of the solid AP shell for anti-armor work. Assuming 65 mm shells from the 65 mm mountain gun, which were plentiful in Italian Army supplies through the period, were compatible with this one, then ammunition options would include high explosive (HE), shrapnel, canister, armor-piercing (AP), and ‘Effetto Pronto’ (rapid effect) shaped charge shells.
The gun is, however, a confusing issue. Whilst the model and indeed the plans both show this very short-barrelled 65 mm gun (~7 calibers), the gun as fitted on the constructed vehicle is clearly longer than this.
The 65 mm Model 13 mountain gun was 17 calibers long and was available, but this is also clearly too long to be the gun that was mounted in the casemate. This leaves open the question of exactly what the gun was. It might be suggested that the gun was a cut-down version of the M.13, but the breech of that cannon does not match either the available drawing or photographs. The gun as fitted is assumed to be between 7 and 13 calibers long and estimated as an L10 caliber gun.
Interior photographs of the Carro da 9t prior to it being rebuilt with a wider casemate appear to show a Fiat-Revelli Model 1926 machine gun. A 6.5 mm caliber weapon, the gun was fed from a 20 round box-type magazine from the left-hand side. On a ground mount, the machine gun came with an unusual crutch-shaped stock, but this was unnecessary in the fixed ball mount, so was not fitted.
Exact specifications for the Carro da 9t armor are not known but, between photographic evidence, logic, and the protection requirements, estimates can be made. The Medium Mark A Whippet had armor up to 14 mm thick – sufficient to keep out bullets from rifles and machine guns, but not cannon fire. Rosini, in his 1938 paper, notes that at least 40 mm was needed to provide protection from 20 mm cannon fire and the 10-tonne to 11-tonne M.11/39 settled on 30 mm for the front and 14.5 mm for the hull sides. Clearly, 40 mm could not be achieved on even the front of the Carro da 9t and given its weight of 9 tonnes. The 3-tonne CV.3 series of light tank had 14 mm on the front, going down to 8 mm on the sides. The Carro da 9t would clearly need to have at least that level to be viable. It is logical that the sides of the Carro da 9t at least roughly matched the M.11, at around 14 mm, as less than this would render the vehicle vulnerable to fire from the flanks.
The Lessons from Spain
The original project had been for little more than a new powerful tank to refight much of the experiences of WW1, but times and weapons had changed dramatically in the years since 1919. Italy had gone into the Spanish Civil War with outdated equipment. One of the key lessons from the Italian involvement in that war was the need for a tank to have a turret. The Italian CV.3 series light tanks (derived from the CV.29) had been used and found to be outclassed by the Soviet-supplied T-26, a tank ironically derived from the Vickers 6-ton, which had been rejected by Italy in the early 1930s.
During this time, other developments for tank design had taken root in Italy with the 1935 requirement for a tank capable of operating in the mountainous north of the country, weighing just 8 to 9 tonnes. In this sense, the Carro da 9t can be seen as less desirable as a design to be pursued for mass production.
By the end of the 1930s, the Carro da 9t formed part of the lessons being adopted by Ansaldo for how to arm tanks. Putting all of the firepower in a casemate was problematic in terms of where firepower could be delivered, but it did produce a low-profile tank.
A final chance?
The Carro da 9t did not go anywhere in Italy. By the time it was finished, tested, trialed, and modified, a better option was available in the form of the 10-tonne/M.11/39 project. Still carrying a cannon in the hull (albeit a 37 mm and not a 65 mm or 47 mm piece) and with a turret for all-around machine gun coverage on a smaller profile vehicle with better suspension, it was better in almost every way than the Carro da 9t. What had started as a design in 1929 for a tank of the 1920s was, by the mid-1930s, a dead end. By the time the Italians had finished testing it, it was little more than a testbed from which to draw lessons in vehicle design and weapons, so it is perhaps surprising that this was not the end of the road for the design.
In 1940, Sir Albert Stern, best known as chairman of the Special Vehicle Development Committee (S.V.D.C.), who worked closely with Sir William Tritton and William Rigby, offered this design to the British Tank Board. Quite why this design was even mentioned is unclear in the context of conversations outside the recorded minutes of the meeting. The design in no way met any of the criteria for a tank the Board wanted, so it can only be speculated that it was simply as a concept for how a bigger gun could be put onto a smaller vehicle as some kind of casemated mounting. Either way, the idea was not entertained, and using this design was not mentioned again.
If the goal at the end of the 1920s had been for a small light tank capable of penetrating enemy lines, then the design from William Foster and Co. was hopeless for that. Heavier than the Renault FT it was to replace, it had barely more armor and was, in effect, still a WW1 era design. The vehicle was never going to square the circle of conflicting needs for a light breakthrough tank. The development and testing took so long that events outside Italy simply rendered it obsolete before it was finished. Italy was going to need a turreted tank with a good gun, but what it was left with after the failure of this project was little more than the starting point for another obsolescent tank, the M.11/39. The failure to invest in the interwar period and the lack of industrial capacity to make up that shortfall in the years running up to WW2 meant that Italy entered the war with a stock of outdated vehicles and struggled continuously to get a modern vehicle to the men who needed it. In an era of military cutbacks in vehicle design and development, lessons from this era and what happened to Italy should serve as a reminder for what happens when you fail to invest or prepare.
Specifications Carro da 9t Crew: at least 2, but probably 3 (driver, primary gunner/commander, machine gunner) Dimensions: 4.9 m long, 1.8 m wide, 2 m high. Ground clearance: 0.37 m Weight: 9 tonnes Armament: 65 mm, 2 machine guns (6.5 mm Fiat-Revelli Model 1926) Ammunition: 80 rounds (65 mm), 3,000 rounds (machine gun) Engine: Unidentified diesel engines.
In 1984, the US military was considering the problems connected with a new range of vehicles, such as the new M1 Abrams main battle tank and M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). As part of the evaluation of trends in future vehicles, a commission looked into the potential for electric drive systems for a 40-ton (36.3 tonne) (tank) and 19.5-ton (17.7 tonne) (APC/IFV) platform.
The US Army’s Tank Automotive Command (TACOM) issued a contract to General Dynamics Land Systems for this project – to evaluate existing electric drive technologies to use in future vehicles. This was contract number DAAE07-84-C-RO16 divided into 2 phases – a third phase was added later under contract modification P00006.
The goal was roughly that of evaluating the ‘new’ (electric drive for vehicles predates armored vehicle) technology available across a variety of platforms for what it may offer for further development. What it actually generated was the realization that electric-drive fighting vehicles were not only possible but had some valuable features worth exploring, especially with regards to a series of heavy IFV platforms. However, like so many other studies, this work faded away and the design work was abandoned. To this day, in 2020, the M1 Abrams remains in service with a conventional power plant along with numerous other armored vehicles in the US inventory. Despite the billions of dollars spent, to date, the US military has yet to capitalize on the potential of electric-drive vehicles.
Phase I: A survey of existing technology (document JU-84-04057-002) Phase II: Generation of concept vehicles with electric drive Phase III: A parametric study and evaluation with selection of 3 recommended concepts for further consideration
General Dynamics had actually been looking into the potential of electric drive systems as early as 1981, producing electric-drive concept vehicles for various other vehicle projects. It also had possession of a 8 x 8 wheeled, 15-ton (13.6 tonne) Electric Vehicle Test Bed (EVTB) it had paid for itself in order to test and validate electric drive.
General Dynamics EVTB (also known as the Advanced Hybrid Electric Drive vehicle). Source: DiSante and Paschen, and Khalil
The timetable for the project was for Phase I to be concluded by the end of 1984. In the end, the report on this phase was finished in July 1984 and then published in January 1985. By this time the second phase was already underway with an expected conclusion date in the latter half of 1985 to be followed by another report and, starting in the middle of 1986, Phase III running through into the start of 1987.
Why Electric Drive?
The potential of electrical drive systems was experimented with on tanks as far back as WW1. An electrical transmission offered the designer a significant freeing up of the internal layout of an armored vehicle, as the drive motors did not have to be next to the engine, and the ability to deliver continuous, reliable power in preference to mechanical systems. This is primarily because an electrical drive system has far fewer moving parts and bearing surfaces than a mechanical system. There are also major advantages, not the least of which being volume. An electrical system could be smaller than the equivalent mechanical system and smaller volume meant more internal volume in a vehicle for other things and/or a reduction in the amount which needed to be protected by armor – that means less weight too. Electrical transmissions are also quieter due to the absence of gearing and driveshafts and offer the not insignificant potential to provide electrical power for the vehicle’s systems.
Some 38 possible concepts across the 19.5 (17.7 tonne) and 40-ton (36.3 tonne) vehicles were considered over four basic vehicle considerations. Plans from various companies and one university submitted concept plans for the program namely: Westinghouse, ACEC (Ateliers de Constructions Electriques de Charleroi), Unique Mobility, Garrett, Jarret, and the University of Michigan. All of the options were to consider a scheme for a baseline vehicle.
Baseline 40-ton electric drive vehicle. Source: GDLS
Baseline Vehicle Description
The baseline vehicle for the EDMBT was very similar in external hull layout to the M1 Abrams, with the automotive elements placed under a raised engine deck at the back of the tank. It had a relatively conventional external shape except that all of the crew were in the hull. Seven wheels on each side were drawn mounted on what appear to be arms, suggesting that it probably kept the same style of torsion bar suspension as on the Abrams. The most noticeable difference though is the lack of a turret, as the vehicle adopted a crewless weapon mount on the roof. This is the only weapon carried on the vehicle and is shown as an automatically loaded 155 mm STAFF (Small Target Fire and Forget) cannon with an elevation range of -7 to +20. Fitted with a single 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun, the gun carries just 15 rounds in an unusual T-shaped bustle at the back. A further 18 rounds were to be carried in the front right of the hull, alongside the driver. No armor was described but, unlike the Abrams, it had a pronounced slope to the glacis. One important note from the drawing is the location of the primary fuel tank containing 420 liters at the front, which would have added to the frontal protection. Protection levels could therefore reasonably be assumed to be at least no less across the frontal arc of the hull as on the Abrams. It is important to remember though that the vehicle shown in the drawing (LK10833), whilst more than a mere doodle of a viable tank design, should only be taken as an illustration of a possible future tank. The power plant work could just as legitimately be refitted to the Abrams – the key part of the study was not this tank per se, but a study to evaluate these power systems for tank propulsion.
40-ton (36.3 tonnes) vehicle Concepts
With four (five including one minor amendment) configurations being considered, the design task was simplified by the specification of the engines to be used. Although the AD-1000 advanced diesel engine generating 1,000 hp was selected, other options were considered across the 19.5 ton (17.7 tonnes) and 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) projects for alternative forms of power. However, in the end, other than the possibility of switching to a petrol-turbine the existing diesel engines were the only technology mature enough to be considered.
Each design was identified by concept number followed by a design number, for example ‘I-3’’ was Configuration 1 Design 3, whereas II-4 was Configuration 2 Design 4, and so on. Vehicle concepts selected to go forward from theoretical design to a drawing stage were all allocated a drawing number starting AD-8432-xxxx.
For the 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) concept, just two candidates were identified for further study – these were I-3 and IV-2. I-3 was designed by Garret and used a larger version of the same system as I-10 for the 19.5-ton (17.7 tonne) vehicle. The second was IV-2 from Unique Mobility which used scaled-up versions of the dual-path AC permanent magnet system it had proposed for the 19.5-ton (17.7 tonne) IV-2 concept.
The drive system for the 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) vehicle application was the same as that of the Garret I-10 19.5 ton (17.7 tonne) vehicle, namely that it used two different paths for the delivery of automotive power, one mechanical and one electrical. The electrical system alone delivered power for speeds from 0 to 15 mph (24 km/h) and, when more power was needed to go above that, the mechanical system was unlocked and coupled to the electrical system. The control unit then controlled the power between these two units.
The electrical power was provided by a permanent magnet AC generator driven by the engine rectified to DC and then inverted in order to provide power to the traction motors. The generator was an oil-cooled Garret-type rated at 400 hp and rotated at 18,000 rpm with 93.5% efficiency. The oil-cooled rectifier for this system operated at 685 Volts DC at 98% efficiency and connected to a 284 Volt AC inverter operating at 96% efficiency.
The traction motors used rare-earth metal magnets made from neodymium which removed the problem of the cobalt-type magnets as the US had adequate stocks of neodymium. The cost of 400 of these power units for the 19.5 ton concepts was estimated to be 1985 US$145,000 per unit (just under US$350,000 in 2020 values), but for the 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) concept, the cost would be around 1985 US$240,000 (over US$575,000 in 2020 values) as it used two traction motors for each final drive.
The Garret traction motors delivered 192 hp each and were able to operate at 200% for up to 30 seconds and deliver power to the final drive units which operated at a 4:1 reduction ratio.
Cooling was an important factor in all of the systems and calculations for the Garret systems (both I-10 for the 19.5 ton and I-3 for the 40-ton) were made. For the 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) vehicle, a maximum heat rejection of 8,737 BTU/Min (9,218 KJ/ Min) was needed.
Analysis by GDLS across the 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) drive systems showed that there would be 855 hp available. The Garrett system was the better of the two for the 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) vehicle and was capable of forward acceleration from 0 to 20 mph (32.2 km/h) in under 7 seconds and reverse acceleration from 0 to 10 mph (16.1 km/h) in under 5 seconds.
When this study was being done, the M1 Abrams was still a relatively new tank in service with the US military. The Soviet Union was still the major enemy to worry about with potential hordes of tanks able to swamp the armies of NATO in Europe still a constant threat in the minds of the NATO Generals. Lacking the option for a quantitative advantage over the Soviets, a qualitative advantage was sought and part of that grand quest was the goal for a tank with greater protection and more firepower than any Soviet contemporary. Just as the M1 Abrams had entered service to provide that advantage, the plan was simply to make an even better vehicle. Here, a turretless design with an autoloader that offered a small target and was capable of destroying any Soviet threat, and which also had the design flexibility offered by an electric drive, was seen as a promising approach. This vehicle was certainly not the only concept at the time to try and shed the weight of a turret on the Abrams or to increase its mobility and firepower. However, no electric drive main battle tank was ever produced along these lines, as the need for such an expensive system expired along with the Soviet Union.
Of the 38 possibilities for a drive system and layout for a 19.5 ton vehicle just three systems had been identified as being suitable for investigation or development; the Belgian ACEC DC system, the Garret AC permanent magnet drive, and the Unique Mobility dual-path AC permanent magnet drive system. Yet, for this heavier, 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) concept MBT design just two ideas made the cut, the Garret (I-3) using a larger version of the system proposed and selected as a potential system for the 19.5 ton (17.7 tonne) vehicle (I-10), and the Unique Mobility concept (IV-2), once more using a scaled-up version of its system proposed for the 19.5-ton (17.7 tonne) (IV-2) concept. Clearly from a logistics point of view and likely from a cost point of view as well any system selected for this 40-ton (36.3 tonnes) project should really have as much in common with the system on the 19.5-ton (17.7 tonne) project as well. Both projects, however, came to nothing and were dropped.
The potential advantages of an electric drive have still not yet been fully exploited by the US military or other tier 1 militaries around the world. With the prospect of freeing up additional internal volume, allowing a new configuration layout, and offering improved performance, a new generation of electric-drive AFVs is possible but unlikely as militaries opt to stick to traditional tried and tested propulsion systems.
GDLS. (1987). Electric Drive Study Final Report – Contract DAAE07-84-C-RO16. US Army Tank Automotive Command Research, Development and Engineering Center, Michigan, USA
DiSante, P. Paschen, J. (2003). Hybrid Drive Partnerships Keep the Army on the Right Road. RDECOM Magazine June 2003
Khalil, G. (2011). TARDEC Hybrid Electric Technology Program. TARDEC
Total weight, battle ready
40 tons (36.3 tonnes)
70.5 “ (1.79 m) hull (raised engine deck) 104” (2.64 m) overall height
296” (7.52 m) overall length, 109.84” (2.79 m) from front wheel to rear (centers)
133” (3.38 m) wide (139” (3.53 m) with side skirts)
22.83” (0.58 m) wide
Track Length on Ground
183.07” (4.65 m)
3 – driver, commander, gunner (estimated)
1,000 hp AD1000 Advanced Diesel engine
45 mph (72.4 km/h)
autoloaded 155 mm STAFF cannon with 15 rounds in autoloader plus 18 more in hull stowage, coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun
Tanks first came to the public consciousness with the British unleashing them at Flers-Courcelette on 15th September 1916. It was some time before pictures of them started to appear in the media and, in the meantime, various artistic renderings of this new weapon of war came out as well. Being tracked and with a complicated development, many claimants put themselves forwards as being the inventors or, at least, the inspiration for the design. The most obvious of these was the American firm of Holt with their ‘Caterpillar’ vehicle. Indeed, the name Caterpillar is now synonymous with tanks and other tracked vehicles in general, but they were not the vehicle on which the British based their tanks in WW1, despite numerous books and television programs repeating this again and again over the decades. There were, in fact, numerous tracked armored and unarmored Caterpillar vehicles used in WW1, and one which received widespread attention was the G-9. If the attention it garnered from the media of the time was impressive, then its ignominious fate did not. Since WW1, it has largely vanished into obscurity. Even the movie ‘Patria’ in which it featured has disappeared from the public consciousness. The Caterpillar G-9 was one of the first American ‘tanks’, a rather poor vehicle built at a time of little or no knowledge of armored vehicle development, but undoubtedly an important one in the history of US vehicle development.
The body of the vehicle was rather crude. Consisting of a slab-sided superstructure that taped slightly towards the roofline, with multiple loopholes or vision slots in the side. At the front, the shape of the body followed the shape of the tractor underneath, curving around the circular mount for the leading wheel and then angling upwards to a large rectangular hatch on the front. At the rear, the slab sides, as well as taping towards the roof, also taped in slightly at the back and there was another large rectangular hatch. Poking out from the rear hatch was a tube for a fake gun and presumably the same from the front hatch. However, with the tractor radiator directly behind it, the option for even a movie extra to stand there and play make-belief is doubtful.
In the film and in some of the photos of it being observed by the US troops, it can clearly be seen to have a pair of turrets, one right at the front of the cab, directly over where the engine was, and a second directly over the rear. Some photos, however, only show a single turret in that second position, with the front one missing.
Given that the structure, other than the tractor underneath, was made of just wood, it is easy to assume that the front turret either fell off, became damaged, or was otherwise removed from the vehicle shortly after filming. Popular Science June 1917 reported that examination by the US military took place straight after filming had finished and this front turret was in a terrible position. Not only would the turret be directly over the engine and all its heat and noise, but it would also obscure any field of observation or fire from the rear turret. On top of that was the small matter of the exhaust. Images of the G-9 with just a single turret show clearly the exhaust from the vehicle exiting the roof right where turret 1 had been, implying that turret 1 simply sat over the exhaust for the film, something likely to have caused exhaust fumes to come back into the vehicle.
The height of the vehicle seems to be a function of the tractor underneath having a large canopy over the top. Building a framework for the ‘armor’ on top of this canopy would also allow someone sitting on top of it to operate the rear turret, making it move for the camera. If this was a real attempt at a design, then this extra height was utterly unnecessary and would only serve to make it a bigger target and more top-heavy. Underneath the turret/turrets and the ‘armor’ was a standard Holt 75 tracked tractor.
The Holt 75 tractor normally weighed 10,432 kg (23,000 lbs.), but was reported as being a ‘13 ton’ (US short tons) at the time of its crash in 1917. Thirteen US short tons is 11,793 kg, meaning an added weight from the ‘tank’ body and turret of just 1,360 kg. This confirms that the body was not truly armored. Were the vehicle to actually carry real and effective armor, such as something not less than 8 mm thick, it would have added substantial mass to the tractor, in the region of 10 – 20 tonnes. This meant that the 75 hp engine would not have been very effective. The maximum loading capacity of the tractor was just 21,350 lbs. (9,684 kg), so it is doubtful that, without a substantial change in the design of the G-9, any worthwhile armor could be carried on the vehicle.
The Holt ‘Caterpillar’
The Holt tractors, sold under the name ‘Caterpillar’, were effective and reliable tracked tractors. Indeed, the Holt design had been, to a degree, one of the reasons behind the impetus behind some of the British push for tracked vehicles in 1915 by men like Robert Macfie. It had some shortcomings too, such as poor speed and an underpowered engine. Even without any armor added, the machine was slow. Cladding several tonnes of extra weight would raise the center of gravity, making it unstable and even slower or utterly immobile, as well as making it hard for the driver to see where he was going.
As a farm vehicle or tractor for hauling guns, these were less problematic but not ignorable. The driver, sitting at the back on the right-hand side, had to try and see forwards over all these obstructions. Even when the vehicle was open and unarmored, his view was obscured by the engine to his front left. With armor, he stood no chance of seeing out of a small slot in the front. Instead, he would have to be guided by at least one other man, probably sat or stood right next to the noisy and hot engine. At least two men were therefore needed to control a vehicle with terrible visibility and, with the problems of communication between them caused by the engine, this was not a recipe for success.
Holt had been successful even before the ‘tank’ appeared, having sold the US Army 63 of its Model 60 tractors with a 60 hp engine. The Model 75, however, was an order of magnitude more successful than the Model 60, staying in production until 1924 at the plant at Peoria, Illinois. Some 442 Holt Model 75s were even manufactured by Messrs. Ruston and Hornsby Ltd. in Lincoln, England. Combined, 4,620 Model 75s were made, of which more than 2,000 entered military service.
In 1916, at the time of the Patria movie, the Holt 75s available would have been US-built examples using the Holt M-7 7 ½” (190 mm) bore, 8 inch (203 mm) stroke ‘valve-in-head’ engine delivering 75 hp, originally known as the Holt 60-75 (A-NVS), if they were made since production began in the Stockton plant in 1913. Some 16 Peoria-built tractors made between 1914 and 1915 used the Holt M-5 ‘Ellhead valve layout’ (T-6 series) engine. Due to problems, this was quickly changed to the Holt 75 (T-8 series) engine being fitted at the Stockton plant in California. Given that the film was also shot in California, it is most probable that the Holt used was a Stockton-made one rather than a Peoria-made example.
The engine was considered perfectly adequate for its normal duties and remained the standard engine until 1921 when it was improved with a new radiator. The T-8 series Holt-75 engine was a 4 cylinder water-cooled unit that ran on paraffin with a capacity of 22.9 liters (1,400 cubic inches), delivering 75 hp at 550 rpm. This power was carried to the drive sprockets moving the tracks via a multiple disc clutch made from 5 plates made from bronze and cast iron, along with a simple reversing gearbox. The gearbox provided for 2 forward and a single reverse gear. Forward speed was limited to 2.13 mph (3.4 km/h) in 1st gear, 3.5 mph (5.6 km/h) in second (top) gear, and 2.13 mph (3.4 km/h) in reverse. The fuel tank held 53.5 Imperial gallons (243.2 liters) which, along with 5 Imperial Gallons (22.7 liters) of oil, and 67 Imperial gallons (304.6 liters) of water, provided the fluids required for the engine to operate.
The Holt tractor itself used cast iron wheels running on heat-treated axles on Hyatt roller bearings. The track itself was connected by case hardened steel pins linking pressed steel plates 24” wide (607 mm), although 30” (762 mm) wide tracks could be fitted. All of the links had pressed corrugations 1.5” (38 mm) deep acting as spuds for traction in soft ground. The load was carried on four double-coil helical springs springing the track along its 80” (2.03 m) ground contact length.
The steering was managed via a single wheel at the front, controlled via a long steering control shaft from the steering wheel and driver’s position. This was located roughly in line with the center of the track units. The steering wheel controlled a non-reversible worm and wheel gear.
An article in Popular Science June 1917 makes it clear that both the body and guns were made of wood, but also that there was a wire cutter built for the front of the vehicle. The G-9, therefore, was completely unarmed, although it is possible that pyrotechnics, like blanks, could be used to simulate gunfire.
With the tanks of Britain and, later, France seeing combat and appearing in the press, it is no shock that, when William Randolph Hearst made a war movie in 1916, he would need a ‘tank’ of his own. Hearst was a very wealthy man and a media tycoon owning numerous newspapers and an animation studio called ‘International Film Service’ (I.F.S.). In 1916, filming of the first episodes began at Wharton Studios in Ithaca, New York, on a movie for I.F.S., all funded by Hearst and very much pushing a political agenda of military preparedness.
To an audience of 1917, the script had lashing of patriotism of dedicated Americans organizing for collective defense against a foreign foe, which culminated in a pitched battle in which, obviously, the ‘good’ side would prevail. In the modern world, it is impossible to see the film without cringing at the blatant jingoism as well as the overt racism of the movie, with stereotyped Japanese villains. However, what is unacceptable now was simply grist for the mill of the overall desire of many for the US to enter the war. It is perhaps odd then that the Japanese were the ‘enemy’, given that, in 1916, Japan was aligned with British interests and actively opposed German ones having already fought the Germans over Tsingtao in 1914. Nonetheless, the rather cartoonish plot involved a secret Japanese cabal of spies in league with nefarious Mexican interests gathering arms and gold in preparation for war in the US. This is perhaps the only time such an alliance has ever been contemplated on film. The Mexican angle was the more reasonable topic of the time, given the invasion of the US in March 1916 by Pancho Villa. Villa’s raid had sacked the city of Columbus, New Mexico, sparking a punitive retaliatory expedition by the Americans.
The shooting of the first episodes of the film took place on the site of Greystone Manor, which is now part of Cornell University. It starred Irene Castle (as Patria Channing) in her screen debut, along with established actors Milton Sills (as Captain Donald Parr), and Warner Oland (as Baron Huroki), an actor most famous later for his portrayal of Fu Man Chu and Charlie Chan.
Patria was a massive work made in no less than 15 separate episodes, costing a phenomenal US$85,000 (over US$2 million in 2021 values). The first 10 episodes were directed by Theodore and Leopold (Ted and Leo) Wharton, but the film was a little too jingoistic even for the day, particularly in its anti-Japanese portrayal.
After the first 10 episodes had been shot, allegedly, President Woodrow Wilson intervened with an appeal to the wealthy Mr. Hearst, requesting that the anti-Japanese sentiment be toned down. The result was that the leading villain, Baron Huroki, was changed from a Japanese character to that of ‘Manuel Morales’. However, the motion picture press coverage of the film at the time makes no mention of such an intervention and Huroki is both clearly villainous, Japanese, and referred to as Baron Huroki. Interplayed with this fiendish Japanese fifth columnist (although the term was not even coined at the time) plot was a criminal Mexican connection on the southern US border playing on the problems there at the time.
The wafer-thin plot of Hurki was contrasting with the glowing, alluring, and wealthy Elaine ‘Patria’ Channing (‘Patria’ means homeland in Latin, i.e. Elaine as the personification of the noble country defiled) working with handsome and dashing Secret Service agent Captain Parr. Together, these two would try to thwart the insidious threat to national security from the invaders and insurrectionists in the form of Huroki, the Japanese, and the Mexican soldiers.
The final 5 episodes were to culminate in stopping the invading Mexicans at the border. The filming for these episodes was moved from New York to the West Coast and were shot in Los Angeles by director Jacques Jaccard. No doubt, California offered a better landscape to match ‘Mexico’ or the Southern USA than New York did.
The film was published for release on 1st January 1917 and premiered on 6th January. It did not receive general release until 14th January 1917 in the USA. By the time of the final episodes being released, the political situation was changing. This culminated in the US declaring war on 6th April 1917, making it an ally with one of the main villains of the film, rendering many of the sentiments of Patria immediately and woefully redundant.
Sadly, the original serial episodes have suffered from the ravages of time and only the first 10 episodes are known to survive. They were pieced back together in 2012 by Serial Squadron. Only limited stills of episodes 11-15 are known to survive and, unfortunately, it is in these final episodes in which the ‘tank’ appears.
Although these final scenes are missing from the film, there are both clues and a few photographs of what the ‘tank’ was that appeared. In fact, the correspondent for Moving Picture World reported that there was not a single ‘tank’ but ‘tanks’ in the final battle.
No footage or stills of the climactic battle are currently known to survive, although one syndicated photograph was thankfully printed in several newspapers at the time. In the photo, a twin-turreted ‘tank’ can be seen ahead of a line of US troops, heading towards what appears to be men either standing or running and with a cloud of smoke or ‘gas’ rolling across the battlefield.
Further to the single image was a long explanation of the action in the scene, which, in the days of silent movies like this one, was fairly common. An audience could read up on the action before watching it and thus be fully informed as to nuances not easy to convey in the occasional slide of words during the film.
Here, in this account, it very clearly states once more that ‘tanks’, plural rather than ‘tank’ singular, were used. It even goes so far as to describe them vividly as “monstrous armadailloes [sic: armadillos]”. More than just two vehicles are actually mentioned, as the final charge is supported by “a fleet of ‘tanks’ – armored caterpillar tractors carrying machine gun crews”, yet this pluralization may simply be colorful reporting rather than strictly and literally correct.
This account of at least two vehicles is somewhat contradicted by that of Lescarboura (1919), who provides actual numbers of the extras and vehicles involved in the scene. He described the use of more than 2,700 men, including 1,200 of the California National Guard, 325 horses, multiple field guns, 25 aircraft, and just “one armored tractor or ‘tank’”. His account of just a single vehicle is backed up by the fact that there is no photo of more than one vehicle at the same time and, more importantly, by a review in Current Opinion which has the same still as before but printed more clearly. From this, it is also clear that there is just a single vehicle involved. A serious explanation of the episode’s key plot points was provided by the magazine Dramatic Mirror of the Stage and Motion Pictures, which also made clear it was just a single-vehicle.
Episode 15 ‘For the Flag’
Baron Huroki plans a night attack on Patria’s line of intrenchments, in which he hopes to surprise her troops. The Japanese advance is driven back, but an attack of liquid fire enabled them to creep up upon the trenches. In desperation, the American troops play their trump cards and send out their huge Caterpillar tank, which ploughs through the enemy’s ranks and scatters them over the border.
Amid the enthusiastic plaudits of the soldiers, Patria seeks out Donald Parr, who had been wounded in the battle, and this thrilling story of romance of war ends blissfully in love’s young dream”
Dramatic Mirror of the Stage and Motion Pictures, Volume 77, Part 1 dated 28th April 1917
The Famous Photos
There is a trio of slightly more famous or well-known images of this vehicle that appeared in the media at the time, outside of the stills from the battle scene. The shooting of Patria had finished before January, as the episodes were rolled out into cinemas and the film-prop ‘tank’ which had been made was still around afterward. In April 1917, images of the tractor appeared in various newspapers and magazines as a ‘tank’ being evaluated by US officers for potential use.
More curious than those April photos was not that the images would be repeated even into September that year or that they even appeared as rather fanciful art, but that the vehicle appears to have predated all of those and the movie.
The first outline of the vehicle appears in the November 1916 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, although it is important to note that the image is not a photograph but an artist’s impression of a tank. This is an important distinction as, although tanks were used on 15th September and news of their success captured the public’s imagination – images did not appear until 23rd October 1916. In this intervening gap, various fanciful depictions appeared and the November edition of Popular Mechanics is no different. Obviously, November is after October, but the November edition would go out in October and prior to the 23rd. Thus it missed the reveal of the real tank and was out of date almost immediately. Nonetheless, this was likely one of the first proper conceptions of what a tank actually looked like, which many Americans may have seen.
It is obviously not possible for the artist to have copied the vehicle from the film, as filming had not yet begun, yet the two vehicles are virtually identical, meaning they are assuredly connected. If one can imagine a wealthy man like Hearst trying to fund a great ‘patriotic’ movie at exactly the same time and not having access to an actual image of a tank but needing one in his film, it is not hard to imagine a situation where the film copied the design from this depiction. In the Popular Mechanics’ depiction, there is a clear explanatory note stating that their artist has rendered the drawing based on reliable data and on photographs of the Holt tractors which were already known to be in British use and purchased for the war. If a soldier at the time described a metal machine clad in armor and with two turrets, this drawing would indeed be a fair conclusion based on the common assumption of the turrets being mounted on the top of the tank rather than on the side as, in fact, they were on those first British machines. In the still image from the film, the vehicle can be seen still using a pair of turrets, as it is in the promotional images published in April 1917 and afterward.
In those April images, one thing is very clear – namely that the vehicle had a pair of turrets. Other images of the vehicle, purported to be taken during evaluation by the US Army, are also known and these feature just a single turret at the back. This change has led to speculation that there were, in fact, two different vehicles and that this is backed up by some of those film reports of multiple tanks in the final scene of Patria. However, not all of the film reviewers agreed that more than one tank was seen. It was, after all, just a prop for a single scene and those tractors were expensive.
Whatever interest the US military may have had in this beast is unclear. By the time they were allegedly looking at it, in the spring of 1917, the British tanks were already seen in the press and, unlike this ungainly machine, were fully tracked. Despite the structure being made out of wood and sheet metal (with wooden pegs inserted to imitate rivets) to simulate armor, the vehicle was still top-heavy and this helped to bring it to grief sometime in March 1917, at least a month or so before photos of it being ‘evaluated’ were shown. When the vehicle rolled over down a bank, it was utterly wrecked and thus it would have been unable to be evaluated, leaving just two possibilities. The first, that there was a second vehicle all along, or second, that the photographs were released after the crash.
Motor Age magazine, reporting on the crash in March 1917, also used the single-turret image and was clear that the photos were both taken in Los Angeles. With the different publishing dates distinct from the dates on which events happened, the reporting of multiple ‘tanks’ during filming, and the removal of one of the mocked-up turrets, it is not hard to see why it can be confusing as to whether there were two vehicles. Clearly, having crashed no later than March 1917, it could not be trialed in April or June, but the publishing dates are misleading, as they are not necessarily reporting events happening at that time, but events that had happened. I.F.S. owning the images is the first clue that option 2 is more likely the answer, as they could release the images to help promote the vehicle and, by default, their own film.
The design was somewhat awful. Impractically large, the tractor itself was solid and reliable and had been seen as helping to inspire some of the British tank development, but it was still not a tank by any interpretation of the word. The vehicle was simply a movie prop for Patria and not much more. The film has largely vanished from the collective consciousness and no full reel of it even exists anymore.
It might, however, be worth remembering the movie a little more. Not for its racism and xenophobia, but because it is likely to be the first ever representation of a tank recorded on film in the United States. In the post-unveiling of the tank by the British in the previous September, the world had come to see this new weapon of war as making a sea-change in the dynamics of land combat. America had clearly been languishing without. America would produce other imitations of foreign designs, eventually putting into production its own version of the French Renault FT. The G-9 design was clearly never a seriously considered tracked vehicle concept and, with the accident destroying the vehicle, it was quickly forgotten. In the century since, however, the appearance of soldiers next to it has led many to believe and claim that this was a real project considered for the US Army. Holt and Caterpillar did not suffer from this. Holt took over the firm of C.L. Best, a rival tractor firm, some years after the war, and together, the brand of Caterpillar went ahead to become a world-renowned brand in all manner of heavy plant equipment, surviving to this day.
Author’s Note: The author would like to thank the Wharton Studio Museum, New York, and Serial HQ for their help in preparing this article.
Specifications Holt Caterpillar G-9
Crew: 2+ (driver x 2) Armor: None Armament: None Engine: Holt M-8 series paraffin engine delivering 75 hp Speed: <3.5 mph (5.6 km/h)
Tanks first appeared on the battlefields of Europe on 15th September 1916 at Flers Courcelette, during a British attack on German trenches. Whilst their use was by no means decisive, they showed that not only did the concept of a tracked armored vehicle work but that they had significant tactical potential. The success at that battle, no matter how small or temporary, was received with glee by a war-weary population in the UK and garnered substantial media attention domestically and abroad. Keen to capitalize on the lack of official photos of the tank at a time when what these weapons even looked like was not known, the firm of Holt, which was known to be supplying tracked vehicles to the British, took action. Even though the US was not yet in the war, Holt was keen to take credit for ‘tanks’ even if his vehicles had little to do with their actual development. The result was that, within just a couple of weeks of their first use, Holt had prepared one of their 75 hp tractors with a ‘tank’ body. The vehicle was used through October 1916 in parades in Peoria, Illinois and, at some point, was painted with the slogan ‘America First’.
‘America First’ the name
It is perhaps odd that the name of this vehicle, at a time of a worldwide war in which the United States was not even involved, would be ‘America First’, a campaign slogan for non-interventionism and isolationism. Whether the motives of promoting this slogan on the vehicle were to try and promote isolationism or to promote the vehicle as the first in the world is unclear. It was certainly a slogan known and used politically at the time and would later gain more prominence. However, in 1916, in this context, the phrase might be considered as one or both of those variants. An image of the vehicle from 16th October 1916 shows no such slogan on the side but, by the end of the month, the slogan had appeared.
The design of the vehicle was relatively simple, consisting of 4 parts making up a large slug-shaped body. The first part was the nose of the vehicle, which curved sharply down from the top of the roof to a rounded point at the front. It was made from 12 large curved pieces, in the center of which was a large opening through which a ‘cannon’ poked through. The gun was presumably a fake one, as the weight of a real gun had no obvious means of support, as well as the fact that it would sit directly over the radiator and engine, making serving the gun as difficult, awkward, and impractical as could be imagined. Alongside this ‘cannon’, in the front, were a pair of narrower tubes sticking out of the nose to simulate some kind of guns or flame projectors. No vision slots or holes were provided in the front for the driver.
The center section of the vehicle was effectively a large rounded boiler made from 5 curved pieces running circumferentially around the vehicle to encapsulate the tractor underneath. Each of those curved pieces was made from a single piece running up to the level just above the ‘guns’ on the front, at which point it was joined to another section. Assuming that the top section went all the way around the top of the vehicle to the same height on the opposite side, it would mean that the ‘boiler’ body was made from a total of 15 pieces. On both sides, pierced through each of the pieces making up the side apart from the very first one, were simple circular holes. No covering for the holes appears to have been provided and they had the appearance of a loophole from which soldiers would be able to fire or provide observations. The holes were right at the top corner of the pieces, slightly above the level of the guns.
The third section was the rear. Once more, this had two narrow ‘tubes’ sticking out of the back, roughly in line with the two smaller ones on the front and once more presumably to simulate weapons. The shape of the rear was roughly the same as the nose as well, as it curved sharply down from the roofline down to the rear and covered the back of the tractor. Unusually, a side view of the vehicle showed that the rearmost section entirely projected past the rear of the tractor underneath, making the vehicle about a third longer than it needed to have been. Two other features identifiable on the rear are the US flag flown near to the top. Below this, a small tube was sticking out of the rear. This is presumed to be an extension for the engine exhaust to carry it backward. Although this normally went vertically, there does not appear to be anything sticking out of the front of the roof of the body, above where the engine went.
The final section of the vehicle was the turret. Made from a simple low cylinder with either a flat roof or just open, at least two more ‘guns’ are seen poking out. It is unclear if the turret was purely decorative or if someone could work in that space, as this would need some form of platform made underneath.
The minimum number of people needed to operate the vehicle was two. At least one person had to sit in the tractor under that body to control the steering and propulsion. With no windows to look out of and being sat just behind the midline, inside the hull, he would have no way of seeing outside. Thus, a second person would be needed, located either in the front or in the turret, to act as a guide to direct it in motion. This second person may also have acted as the commander. This was an awful arrangement for controlling a vehicle and alone should have precluded ideas of it being useful in combat as a successful weapon.
Assuming the other ‘weapons’ were operational, then more than 2 men would be inside. Three weapons pointed forwards each would require at least one man and the same at the back for those other two. The small turret could house perhaps two men at most and there is no indication of whether a few more could be housed inside to fire out of the circular loopholes in the side. Even ignoring those loopholes, that would be at least 9 men (2 drivers, 7 gunners). Despite the large crew complement, there is no indication as to how they could get in or out of the vehicle, as no hatches are shown. This leaves the only obvious means of access being to dip under the outer edge of the body and to climb in from ground level. This was perhaps acceptable for a display machine operating in parades, but was both utterly impractical and potentially deadly if there was ever an idea that this vehicle might serve as a template for a combat-viable vehicle. After all, if, operating on slightly soft ground, the vehicle caught fire, none of the men would be able to get out.
The Holt tractors, sold under the name ‘Caterpillar’, were effective and reliable tracked tractors, but they were relatively slow and heavy. They were, after all, designed for hard work, ploughing fields, etcetera. There, power and pulling were more important than speed or comfort. Unarmored, the Holt 75 tractor normally weighed 10,432 kg (23,000 lbs.). With a 75 hp engine, this meant a power to weight ratio of just 7.2 hp/tonne. Any armor or armament on top of the vehicle’s base weight would only decrease performance further, as well as altering the center of gravity, making it less stable. To have armor of any value, such as for stopping bullets, such a vehicle would need at least 6 to 8 mm of steel. Covering such a large body in that shape would add several tonnes to the weight. Assuming the weight of any armor, crew, armament, ammunition, etcetera added to the Holt 75 to make it into a ‘tank’ could be kept to perhaps not more than 10 tonnes, then it would mean a vehicle of over 20 tonnes propelled by just the same 75 hp engine, with a power to weight ratio of 3.75 hp/tonne. Effectively, in order to carry enough armor to be useful, this vehicle would become stuck on anything other than an ideal hard surface, at which point it may as well have just been an armored car, the type of which were already in existence. The design, as presented, could never be a viable tank in that sense – it was a display vehicle only, and the ‘armor’ likely just sheet metal fastened over a wooden frame to keep weight down. The bigger problem for the design was the armor at the rear. Any vertical slope or step to climb would raise the front of the vehicle, pivoting over the track area, where the longitudinal center of gravity was, making it tip back. The projection would then dig into the ground and immobilize the vehicle, therefore seriously limiting the amount of climb possible.
In 1916, at the time the America First vehicle was being prepared, there were two plants owned by Holt producing the 75 Model. One was at Stockton in California, and the other at Peoria, in Illinois. Given that the parades taking place with the vehicle were in Peoria, it is virtually certain that the Holt 75 used was a Peoria-built example.
The tractor was powered by the Holt M-7 7 ½” (190 mm) bore, 8 inch (203 mm) stroke ‘valve-in-head’ engine delivering 75 hp. It had been in production since 1913, originally under the name Holt 60-75 (A-NVS), followed by the slightly improved Holt M-8 series engine. This was the standard engine and virtually unchanged until the end of production of the tractor in 1924.
This engine was a 4 cylinder water-cooled unit that ran on paraffin, with a capacity of 22.9 liters (1,400 cubic inches), delivering 75 hp at 550 rpm. This power was carried to the drive sprockets moving the tracks via a multiple disc clutch made from 5 plates made from bronze and cast iron, along with a simple reversing gearbox. The gearbox provided for 2 forward and a single reverse gear. Forward speed was limited to 2.13 mph (3.4 km/h) in first gear, 3.5 mph (5.6 km/h) in second (top) gear, and 2.13 mph (3.4 km/h) in reverse. The fuel tank held 53.5 Imperial gallons (243.2 liters) which, along with 5 Imperial Gallons (22.7 liters) of oil, and 67 Imperial gallons (304.6 liters) of water, provided the fluids required for the engine to operate.
The Holt tractor itself used cast iron wheels running on heat-treated axles on Hyatt roller bearings. The track was connected by case hardened steel pins linking pressed steel plates 24” wide (607 mm), although 30” (762 mm) wide tracks could be fitted. All of the links had pressed corrugations, 1.5” (38 mm) deep, acting as spuds for traction in soft ground. The load was carried on four double-coil helical springs springing the track along its 80” (2.03 m) ground contact length.
The steering was managed via a single wheel at the front, controlled via a long steering control shaft from the steering wheel and driver’s position. This was located roughly in line with the center of the track units. The steering wheel controlled a non-reversible worm and wheel gear.
A somewhat fanciful depiction of the America First tank in action appeared at the end of October 1916, a few days before any pictures of an actual tank were available. The artist made it seem like this giant slug of a vehicle was a viable weapon.
A close look at the image, however, provides some additional information on the structure. If it is correct in its representation of the vehicle, then the top of the hull was formed without a seam or joint along the top, meaning 5 large curved pieces made up the whole upper structure. Less believable are the three (or possibly four) large guns poking out of that small cylindrical turret leaving zero room inside for any crew, loading, or even a breach for the guns.
More interestingly, perhaps, than the fanciful depictions of these weapons in use, is that the front wheel of the tractor can clearly be seen to be suspended in thin air over the trench. This was not an error of art and was either good luck from the artist or an actual representation of something the tractor was often pictured doing – driving with the front wheel off the ground. This is because, despite the engine being towards the front of the vehicle, most of the weight was at the back, over the tracks. The result was that, when ascending or descending a slope or when crossing an obstacle, the front wheel was often seen off the ground. This looked very dramatic for images showing the capability of the vehicle, but was a serious problem if the vehicle needed to turn. That small wheel was the method of steering the vehicle and, when it was not in contact with the ground, this was a problem.
The first use of tanks was on 15th September 1916 and the first photos in print did not appear in the USA or anywhere else until the middle of October. This left a gap of around a month in which various drawings and pictures of tanks were published in the press based on descriptions, which were often rather laughably inaccurate. In this gap came the vehicle from Holt, which was not a serious design for use off-road and was clearly put together as quickly as possible to show off the contribution of Holt to the war. By the time photos became available in the US press, at the end of October (although not in the British press until November), showing what real tanks looked like, such a vehicle from Holt probably looked a little ridiculous, sharing no design features at all with the real thing. By November 1916, the vehicle appears to have disappeared from the parade scene, likely stripped of its body and simply reused as a tractor.
Alexander, J. (2015). Briefly Famous, The 1917 Caterpillar G-9 Tank and other American Tanks 1916-1918. Privately Published.
Corsicana Daily Sun, Texas 4th November 1916
Le Miroir, 29th April 1917
LeGros. (1918). Traction on Bad Roads. Reprinted 2021 FWD Publishing, USA
Harper’s Weekly 16th October 1916
The Ogden Standard, 21st October 1916, To the rescue in a land cruiser.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Austin Champ specifications
12’ (3.66 m) long, 5’ (1.65 m) wide, 6’ 8.5” (1.87 m) high with tilt erected
1 (Driver), seating for 5
Rolls Royce B40 2.838 liter petrol engine producing 80 bhp at 3,750 rpm, or Austin A90 2.66 liter petrol
50 mph (80.5 km/h)
None but optionally fitted with machine guns or a recoilless rifle
None as standard but armor kits available est. 8 – 10 mm thick
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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
a Light Infantry Battalion from 7th Infantry Division
a Marine light armored company equipped with LAV-25 Light Armoured Vehicles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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
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.
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).
The USA finally transferred control of the canal to Panama, as had been originally agreed, on 31st December 1999.
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 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.
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.
Bovington Tank Museum Archives, STT section, Cerebos box
21ft 5.5 inches x 9ft 10 inches x 8ft 4 inches (6.53 x 3.00 x 2.54 m)
3 (commander/gunner, driver, loader)
Jaguar 9 liter 90° V8, 350 bhp
28 mph (45 km/h)
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)
Vertical obstacle crossed
3ft 8 inches (1.12 m)
7ft (2.13 m)
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
350 fps (107 m/s)
12 High Explosive Anti Tank Missiles
Front: 120 mm @ 65 degrees
Sides: 25-20 mm
Rear 25 mm
Bottom 20 mm
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