Categories
Cold War French Tanks Improvised AFVs

AMX-US (AMX-13 Avec Tourelle Chaffee)

France
Improvised Light Tank (1957) – 150 Built

In 1956, the French Army and the Direction des Etudes et Fabrications d’Armements (Directorate of Studies and Manufacture of Armaments, DEFA, an institution within the French Military) were looking into affordable methods of modernizing their fleet of aging M24 Chaffee light tanks. One method was to somehow combine France’s new domestic light tank, the AMX-13, with the M24.

The officially designated AMX-US was a result of this. It would ‘mate’ the turret of the M24 with the hull of the AMX-13. The AMX-13 would become one of the world’s most popular light tanks to come out of the Cold War era, appearing in the early 1950s. While this particular variant goes by the official name of ‘AMX-US’, there are many other unofficial names, including ‘AMX-13 Chaffee’ – as it was known by troops – or ‘AMX-13 Avec Tourelle Chaffee (with Chaffee Turret)’.

Just a small number of these vehicles were produced. They initially found service in French Military Units tasked with policing colonies such as Algeria. They eventually found use as driver training vehicles once they were discharged from frontline service.

Two AMX-US’, ‘Lamarck’ and ‘Lagalissoniere’, sit side by side in Algeria in the early 1960s. The AMX-US was a convenient improvisation, ‘mating’ the new AMX-13 hull, with the older turret of the M24 Chaffee. Photo: chars-francais.net

French Chaffees

After the Second World War, France’s armored force consisted, almost entirely, of US-built vehicles, such as the M4 Sherman, M26 Pershing, and M24 Chaffee (among others). France received these vehicles as aid as part of the Marshall Plan and the Mutual Defense Assistance Act (MDAA). These aid pacts also financed the reconstruction of France’s economy and armed forces from 1948 until the late 1950s. In April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, and NATO was born, resulting in the United States extending the MDAA. This resulted in France receiving newer vehicles, such as the M47 Patton II tank.

In total, France would operate around 1,250 M24s which were identical to their US counterparts. It was a small tank at 5.45 meters (16 ft 4 in) long, 2.84 meters (9ft 4in) wide, and 2.61 meters (9ft 3in) tall. It weighed 16.6 tonnes (18.37 tons), utilized a torsion bar suspension, and was armed with a 75 mm gun. The tank had a 5 man crew: Commander, Gunner, Loader, Driver, Bow Gunner. The ‘Chaffee’ was named after WWI US Army General, Adna R. Chaffee Jr.

The French Army deployed its M24 in both the 1954-1962 War in Algeria, and the 1946-1954 First Indochina War. It served with distinction in both theatres but would ultimately end up being fully replaced by the AMX-13.

M24 Chaffee of the French Army’s 3rd Company, 1st Light cavalry Regiment (3/1 RCC), in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. Photo: Osprey Publishing

The AMX-13

Designed and built by Atelier d’Issy les Moulineaux or ‘AMX’, the officially titled Char de 13 tonnes 75 modèle 51 (Tank, 13 tonnes, 75mm gun, model of 1951) – often shortened to Mle 51, was more commonly known as the ‘AMX-13’. The tank was designed in the late 1940s and appeared in service in the early 1950s. It was designed to be a lightweight, highly mobile tank destroyer that could also perform the reconnaissance tasks of a light tank.

It was lightly armored, with the toughest plates being just 40 mm (1.57 in) thick. Its main armament consisted of the 75 mm Canon de 75 S.A. Mle 50, often known simply as the CN 75-50 or SA-50. The design of this gun was derived from the powerful Second World War German KwK 42 gun mounted on the Panther. The gun was mounted in an innovative oscillating turret and was also fed via an autoloading system.

The AMX weighed in at around 13 tonnes (14 tons) and was 6.36 m (20 ft 10 in, with gun) long, 2.51 m (8 ft 3 in) wide, and 2.35 m (7 ft 9 in) tall. It was operated by a 3-man crew consisting of the Commander, Driver, and Gunner. The tank went through many upgrades with many variations based on its highly adaptable chassis. The French Military only retired the AMX in the 1980s, but many other nations retain it in service.

The Standard AMX-13 Light Tank or, as it is officially known, the Char de 13 tonnes 75 modèle 51. Photo: weaponscollection.com

Char Meets Chaffee

In 1956, DEFA and the French Military were investigating ways to efficiently upgrade the aging Light Tank M24. Initially, this led to the mating of the Mle 51’s FL-10 oscillating turret to the hull of the Chaffee. While cheap and feasible, this configuration never went further than trials. This was largely due to a perceived safety issue with the High-Explosive (HE) rounds fired by the CN 75-50 cannon. Inside the FL-10 turret, the CN 75-50 gun was fed via an automatic loading system, which was reloaded externally. If an alternate shell-type needed to be fired, HE, for example, it had to be loaded into the breach manually by the Commander. This was a tricky task in the tight confines of the turret on the standard AMX, made worse by the notoriously sensitive fuze of the HE rounds. This process would be even more dangerous on the smaller hull of the Chaffee. As a result, the inverse of this mounting was decided upon, mounting the Chaffee’s turret on the Mle 51’s hull.

M24 Chaffee hull fitted with the Mle 51’s (AMX-13’s) FL-10 Oscillating turret. This version of the mating of the two tanks was not pursued, largely due to the sensitivity of the fuses on the HE shells fired by the CN 75-50 gun. Photo: reddit

Avec Tourelle Chaffee

By 1957, work on the inverse of mounting the Chaffee turret to the AMX hull had begun. This was seen as a safer and easier alternative. It was also a convenient way of recycling useful Chaffee turrets by separating them from their worn hulls. It also created a vehicle lighter than the regular Chaffee, meaning it was easier to transport.

The M24 turrets went through very little modification for their installation, retaining all the same main features. The only modification necessary was the introduction of an adapter or ‘collar’ to the AMX hull’s turret ring. This was needed as the Chaffee turret had quite a deep basket. The collar granted the basket clearance from the hull floor for uninterrupted, full 360-degree rotation.

This photo shows what happened to these tanks once they were retired from active service. They were disarmed and became training vehicles. However, this photo also shows the adaptor ‘collar’ installed on the Mle 51s turret ring to allow the attachment of the Chaffee’s turret. Photo: chars-francais.net

Turret Details

The Chaffee turret was a standard design with a typical 3-man crew of the time: Gunner, Loader, and Commander. The Commander sat at the left rear of the turret under a vision-cupola, the gunner sat in front of him. The loader was located at the right-rear of the turret under his own hatch. Armor on the turret was 25 mm (.98 in) thick on all sides, with the gun mantlet being 38 mm (1.49 in) thick. Armament consisted of the 75 mm Lightweight Tank Gun M6 which had a concentric recoil system (this was a hollow tube around the barrel, a space-saving alternative to traditional recoil cylinders). Variants of this gun were also used on the B-25H Mitchell Bomber, and the T33 Flame Thrower Tank prototype. The shell velocity was 619 m/s (2,031 ft/s) and had a maximum penetration of 109 mm. The elevation range of the gun was around -10 to +13 degrees. Secondary weapons were also retained. This included the coaxial .30 Cal (7.62 mm) Browning M1919 Machine Gun, and the .50 Caliber (12.7 mm) M2 Browning Heavy Machine gun which was mounted on the rear of the turret roof.

A regular M24 Chaffee (left) sits alongside a Mle 51 ‘Avec Tourelle Chaffee’. The Mle 51 is noticeably lower. Photo: chars-francais.net

The AMX Hull

Apart from the adaptor or ‘collar’, the AMX hull went through no alterations. It retained the same dimensions, and forward-mounted engine and transmission. The tank was powered by a SOFAM Model 8Gxb 8-cylinder, water-cooled petrol engine developing 250 hp, propelling the tank to a top speed of around 60 km/h (37 mph). The vehicle ran on a torsion bar suspension with five road-wheels, two return rollers, a rear-mounted idler, and a forward-mounted drive-sprocket. The driver was positioned at the front left of the hull, behind the transmission and next to the engine.

Service

Trials with what would be designated the ‘AMX-US’ were undertaken between December 1959 and January 1960. The vehicle was well received, with an order for 150 conversions being placed by the French military in March 1960. Conversion work was carried out at a plant in Gien, North-Central France.

A French tank platoon consisting of 3 AMX-US’ and a single M8 HMC enter an urban area in Algeria during the conflict. Photo: Pen & Sword Publishing

The AMX-US was operated by a four-man crew, as opposed to the three-man crew of the standard Mle 51, due to the three-man turret of the Chaffee. The AMX-US saw brief service in the War in Algeria – otherwise known as the Algerian War of Independence or Algerian Revolution. They served well, but a few were lost in combat. One known operator was the 9e Régiment de Hussards (9th Hussar Regiment) based in Oran. There is no evidence to suggest they served in any other location with the French military, such as in France or West Germany based regiments.

After the conflict in Algeria, the vehicles were returned to France. They did not last long in active service after this, with many vehicles being repurposed into driver trainers. For this, the vehicles were disarmed, with the 75 mm gun and mantlet removed from the turret face. In its place, a large plexiglass windscreen was installed. In this capacity, the AMX-US stayed in service until the 1980s, when they were finally completely retired. After this, many were ‘sentenced to death’ as range targets or simply scrapped.

An AMX-US Driver Trainer with removed armament. Photo: chars-francais.net

Conclusion

The AMX-US is an example of an effective improvisation. It ‘mated’ old technology with new technology, creating a cheap yet effective light tank that did its job without issue. It also solved the problem of what to do with useful surplus and excess material. An interesting observation is that this is the only AMX-based upgrade or conversion that resulted in the hull being used and not the turret – apart from the AMX-13 (FL-11). The M4/FL-10 is a successful example of this.

Due to the AMX-US’ fate, the vehicles are now extremely rare, with almost none surviving. Some, however, do still sit rusting away on military ranges.

The crew of two AMX-US tanks take a break in Algeria. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


AMX-US ‘Lamarck’ during the Algerian Conflict of the early 1960s. The combination of the Mle 51’s hull with the M24 Chaffee’s turret was achieved with a simple adaptor ‘collar’ placed on the turret ring.


When they were retired from active service, many AMX-US’ were turned into driver trainers. They were completely disarmed, with a large window on the front of the turret replacing the gun and mantlet.

These illustrations were produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.

Specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 6.36m (4.88m without gun) x 2.5m x 2.3m
(20’9″ (16’0″) x 8’2″ x 7’5″ ft.in)
Total weight, battle-ready Aprx. 15 tons
Crew 4 (Commander, Loader, Gunner, Driver)
Propulsion Renault gasoline, 8-cylinder water-cooled 250 hp
Suspension Torsion arms
Maximum speed 60 km/h (40 mph)
Range (road) 400 km (250 mi)
Armament 75 mm Lightweight Tank Gun M6
.30 Cal. (7.62 mm) Browning M1919 Machine Gun
.50 Caliber (12.7 mm) M2 Browning Heavy Machine gun
Armor Hull 40 mm (1.57 in), turret 38 mm (1.49 in)
Production 150

Sources

M. P. Robinson, Peter Lau, Guy Gibeau, Images of War: The AMX 13 Light Tank: A Complete History, Pen & Sword Publishing, 2019.
Olivier Carneau, Jan Horãk, František Kořãn, AMX-13 Family in Detail, Wings & Wheels Publications.
Steven J. Zaloga, New Vanguard #77: M24 Chaffee Light Tank 1943-85, Osprey Publishing
Jim Mesko, M24 Chaffee in Action, Squadron/Signal Publications
www.chars-francais.net


Categories
Improvised AFVs WW2 US Other Vehicles

USMC Improvised M4A2 Flail Tank

USA (1944-45)
Flail Tank – 1 Built

In 1944, the United States Army began testing British-built flail tanks such as the Crab and Scorpion. Mine flails like these consist of a rotating drum connected to a series of chains suspended from the front of the vehicle. The drum rotates at a high speed, causing the chains to pummel the ground, detonating any mines that may be buried.
Meanwhile, down on Maui, one of the Hawaiian islands in the central Pacific, members of the 4th Marine Division, United States Marine Corps (USMC), were recuperating from their time battling the Japanese on Saipan and Tinian. While on Maui in late 1944, the 4th Marines began to undertake experiments with their tanks, one of which was copying the Crab and Scorpion equipment they had seen in an article in an issue of ‘Armored Force Journal’ (or possibly ‘Infantry Journal’) that the division had received.

The result of this particular experiment was an improvised mine flail built using an old M4 Dozer and the back axle of a truck. While it was just an improvised vehicle built from scrap, it did make it to the ash-covered island of Iwo Jima. Its deployment there, however, did not exactly go to plan.

The Marine Corps’ improvised flail tank, built on a salvaged M4A2 Dozer with an added truck axle and Jeep parts. Photo: Sherman Minutia

Guinea Pig, an M4A2 Dozer

The Marine Corps began to receive the M4A2 in 1943. The tank was of a welded construction and was 19 feet 5 inches (5.9 meters) long, 8 feet 7 inches (2.6 meters) wide and 9 feet (2.7 meters) high. It was armed with the typical 75mm Tank Gun M3 main armament. Secondary armament consisted of a coaxial and a bow-mounted Browning M1919 .30 Cal. (7.62mm) machine gun. Armor thickness was pretty standard for the M4s with a maximum of 3.54 inches (90 mm). The tank’s weight of around 35 tons (31.7 tonnes) was supported on a Vertical Volute Spring Suspension (VVSS), with three bogies on each side of the vehicle and two wheels per bogie. The idler wheel was at the rear. Average speed was around 22–30 mph (35–48 km/h). The big difference of the A2 with respect to other M4’s was the fact that it was diesel powered, unlike other models which were mostly petrol/gasoline driven. The A2’s powerplant consisted of a General Motors 6046, which was a twin inline diesel engine producing 375 hp.

Dozer tanks are used for route clearance. Dozer kits were installed on a number of different Sherman types in the Pacific, not just the A2. Others included the M4 Composites and M4A3’s. They were able to push debris off roads or clear routes through the dense jungles of the Pacific islands. The Dozer blade, known as the M1, was 10 feet 4 inches (3.1 meters) wide and was attached via long arms to the second bogie of the suspension. On the transmission housing on the bow of the host tank, a hydraulic ram was placed to allow the blade a small degree of vertical traverse.

M4A2 gun tanks and M4A2 with M1 dozer of the 3rd Marine Division on Guam, Summer 1944. It is a dozer tank like this that was chosen for the flail experiment. Photo: Ed Gilbert

The Modifications

After reading the article about the flail tanks the Army had tested, Robert Neiman, the Commander of C Company, 4th Tank Battalion decided that it would be a good idea for the Marines to develop their own version. Nieman discussed this with his Officers and NCOs who agreed with the concept. They knew that, in the coming battles, it was highly likely that they would run into dense Japanese minefields, and there were not always enough engineer personnel to clear them. The guinea pig for this experiment was a salvaged M4A2 dozer tank named “Joker” that had previously served with the 4th Tank Battalion on Saipan. It was available for this experiment as, at this time, the Marine Corps was starting to be re-equipped with the newer gasoline/petrol engined M4A3 model. The modifications were undertaken by Gunnery Sergeant Sam Johnston and Staff-Sergeant Ray Shaw who was also the chief maintenance NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer).

A new welded frame was constructed and attached to the joint on the second bogie. At the end of this frame, they placed a salvaged axle and differential from a truck. Drums were placed where the wheels once were and it was to this that the flail elements were attached. Approximately 15 elements were attached to each drum. The elements consisted of a length of twisted metal cable with towing eyes at the end, short lengths of chain, approximately 5 links in length, were then attached to this cable.

A view of the improvised flail, clearing showing its truck axle origins – the differential is clearly visible. Gy.Sgt S. Johnston is at the controls. Photo: Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War

A drive shaft extended from the differential housing to the glacis of the tank and passed through the armor just to the left of the bow machine gun position. On the inside, this meshed with a salvaged transmission from a jeep which was, in turn, connected to the tank’s own drive shaft. This is what provided drive to the flail, allowing it to spin. The bow-gunner/assistant driver would be in charge of controlling the rotation and speed of the flail.

A frame was built atop the vestigial hydraulic ram left over from the tank’s time as a dozer. This frame supported the drive shaft, but also allowed the flail assembly to be lifted up and down. Additional support when lifting was provided by a metal shaft bolted to the glacis of the tank. It had a joint at the glacis end, with the other end connected to the frame near the axle – also jointed.

A view of the tank with the flail at full elevation. Photo: Getty

Testing

On completion of the vehicle, tests were authorized. Division commanders authorized the laying of a live minefield for the vehicle to carve a path through. In this initial test, the vehicle successfully beat a 30 to 40-yard (27 – 36 meter) path through the minefield. The tank emerged unscathed, the only real damage received was to the differential housing. Shrapnel from an exploding mine had penetrated the underside of the housing, but there was no internal damage. To stop this happening again, the engineers encased the housing in welded metal plating and during the following tests, no more damage was received.

A head-on view of the flail tank. Note the crudely welded armor on the differential housing. S.Sgt Ray Shaw is standing next to the turret. Photo: Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War

Robert Nieman informed other Officers and his superiors of the success of the tests. Pretty soon, a display for high-ranking Officers of other units and branches stationed on Maui was arranged. However, come the morning of the display, the man with all the experience driving the thing, Gy.Sgt Johnston was, to quote Nieman; “drunk as a skunk”. Luckily, another driver was found for the display, which proved to be a great success. So much so, that it was planned to use this improvised vehicle with the 4th Tank Battalion in the coming assault on Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima

Despite being the only one of its kind (and being a purely improvised vehicle), the flail tank was deployed during the February 1945 invasion of the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. It was assigned to the 4th Tank Battalion’s 2nd Platoon, under the command of a Sergeant Rick Haddix. It caused a small logistical issue, as it was the only Diesel engined tank the 4th Battalion took to Iwo.

Robert Nieman (left) with his executive officer, Bob Reed (right) stand in front of the flail assembly of the improvised de-mining tank on Maui before the Iwo Jima campaign. Photo: Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War

Iwo Jima was both the first and last deployment of the vehicle. It is commonly thought that the tank simply bogged down in the soft ashen terrain of the island, as was the case with many tanks during the assault. In actuality, the fate of the vehicle was much more detailed than that. The Flail tank managed to advance to the island’s first airfield – simply identified as ‘Airfield No. 1’. Near the airfield was a series of flags, Sgt. Haddix believed these to be markers for a minefield and ordered the tank forward. These flags, however, were actually range markers for Japanese heavy-mortars in an elevated but hidden position nearby. The tank was pummeled by a barrage of mortar bombs, critically damaging the flail assembly and the tank itself. Following this, Sgt. Haddix and his men bailed out and abandoned the tank.

Conclusion

Thus ends the story of this improvised mine flail. Despite making it to one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the Pacific Campaign, it never got a chance to prove itself. Robert Nieman was of the opinion that there needed to be more, which would likely have become a reality if American Forces had gone on to invade the Japanese mainland. Nonetheless, this improvised vehicle is a testament to Marine ingenuity. The Marines at this time were used to receiving the Army’s hand-me-downs, so the ‘make do and mend’ nature came naturally to these men. Although, by 1944, the Corps was getting what it requested from its own supply system. It is unclear what happened to the flail tank after it was abandoned. The most logical guess is that it would have been salvaged and scrapped during the post-battle cleanup.

Other US Flails

Neither the United States Army nor Marine Corps ever officially adopted a mine flail, although many were tested; some even in theatres such as Italy. The most produced flail was the Mine Exploder T3, a development of the British Scorpion, built on the hull of the M4A4 – a tank that otherwise went unused in American forces, other than in training units. Just like the Scorpion, the flail assembly was mounted at the front of the tank and was driven by a separate engine mounted externally on the right side of the hull, encased in a protective box. This engine drove the flail to 75 rpm. The Pressed Steel Car Company undertook the production of the T3 and would construct 41 vehicles in total. A number of these were rushed into theatre overseas in 1943. They went on to be used in the Italian Campaign, most notably in the Breakout from Anzio and the fight towards Rome. The flails were operated by men of the 6617th Mine Clearing Company, formed from the 16th Armored Engineers of the 1st Armored Division. The vehicles were eventually declared unfit for service as mine detonations frequently disabled the flail – the flail also limited the tank’s maneuverability.

The Mine Exploder T3 prototype. No chains are installed on the flail. Photo: Hunnicutt’s Sherman

An improved design for a flail was unveiled in June 1943, designated the T3E1. This vehicle was similar to the British Crab as the flail drum was propelled via a power-take-off from the tank’s engine. Although it was an overall improvement, it was still a failure and disliked by operators. This was mostly because the flail threw rocks and dust into the vision ports and because the flail unit was too rigid to follow the contours of the terrain.

When the Second World War ended, work on mine flails in the US ceased. With the eruption of the Korean War in June 1950, however, attention was again given to such vehicles. In preparation for deployment to the Korean Peninsula, engineers stationed in Japan began working on flails built on late-model M4s, namely the M4A3 (76) HVSS. The most common type to emerge featured wire cutters at each end of the drum, and 72 flail chains. Like the Scorpion flails, the drum was propelled by an external engine mounted in a protective box on the right side of the hull. Other flails were improvised in the field, but information on these is scarce.

Seen in this photo from 1952 is one of the M4A3 (76) HVSS tanks converted to a mine flail in Japan prior to deployment in Korea. This vehicle was operated by the 245th Heavy Tank Battalion of the 45th Infantry Division.


Illustration of the Marine Corps’ improvised Mine Flail, built on the hull of a salvaged M4A2 Dozer, using a truck axle and a salvaged transmission from a jeep. Illustration by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.

Specifications

Dimensions (not including flail) 5.84 x 2.62 x 2.74 m
19’2” x 8’7” x 9′
Total weight (flail not included) 30.3 tons (66,800 lbs)
Crew 5 (commander, driver, co-driver, gunner, loader)
Propulsion Twin General Motors 6046, 375hp
Maximum speed 48 km/h (30 mph) on road
Suspensions Vertical Volute Spring (VVSS)
Armament M3 L/40 75 mm (2.95 in)
2 x (7.62 mm) machine-guns
Armor Maximum 76 mm (3 in)

Sources

Robert M. Neiman & Kenneth W. Estes, Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War, Texas A&M University Press
R. P. Hunnicutt, Sherman – A History of the American Medium Tank, Presidio Press
The Sherman Minutia
Evolution of Marine Tanks


Categories
Improvised AFVs WW2 Australian Prototypes

Melvaine's Mobile Pill Box

Australia Australia (1944)
Improvised Vehicle – None Built

The ‘Mobile Pill Box’ was the brainchild of W. W. Melvaine. He lived in Brighton Boulevard, Bondi, Australia. It was one of many inventions submitted to the Army Inventions Directorate of the Australian Army in the Second World War. Many designs were submitted for all manner, shape, and size of weaponry including tanks. Although the inventors of such vehicles often had a preference for huge landships or ‘big-wheel’ designs there were also a number of smaller designs and Melvaine’s Mobile Pill Box’ is perhaps one of the more unusual Australian tank designs of the War.

Melvaine’s mobile machine gun and grenade pillbox of 1944. Photo: Author’s
On 19th January 1944, Melvaine wrote a surprisingly short letter to the Army with this suggestion. It was notable for the total lack of detail and explanation. It did not contain any ideas about why he thought his idea might be good, or better than methods or vehicles currently in use. The entirety of his letter comprised just four handwritten lines:

“Dear Sir, May I suggest the possibility of such a thing as a bulletproof mobile machine gun and grenade pill box for close up attacks on foxholes and dugouts – Yours Faithfully W.W. Melvaine”

The sentence was followed by three crudely drawn sketches of his idea which more resembled the traditional Australian thunderbox (outside toilet) than any kind of useful tank.

Possibly a sketch of the rear of this vehicle appearing to show the design open at the back. Photo: Author’s

The design

The design was relatively simple, consisting of a small tracked platform with at least two wheels on each side powered by a small motor in the crew space. This small motor was open to the occupant. There was just enough room for a single soldier. This soldier would have to man the single forward facing machine gun from a standing position.
As well as the machine gun the soldier inside would have a box of grenades. From within this armoured-outhouse, he would most likely have had to exit through the open rear to lob a grenade. This would have meant being exposed to enemy fire from the flanks.
The height of the machine would mean it would be visible to the enemy before the soldier could see them and there is no clear indication of how it was to be steered or even how the soldier would be able to see where he was going.
There is no indication provided by Melvaine as to the prospective size of the machine which can only be estimated by the size of the soldier and no idea as to the performance he wanted or expected. Likewise other than saying ‘bulletproof’, there was no thought given to the amount of armour this design should carry.


Illustration of Melvaine’s Mobile Pill Box by Mr. C. Ryan, funded by our Patreon Campaign.

The Official Review

This idea by Melvaine received perhaps one of the shortest assessments for an invention, and it was as blunt as it was negative, saying:

“Tanks are in use for this purpose. The proposal is crude and retrograde”.

And with that, the idea was dead.

Conclusion

Being disparaging about some of these invention ideas could be considered churlish. This design had, after all, the advantage of simplicity on its side, and perhaps under other circumstances might have found some kind of use. The idea though, that in 1944, this invention might somehow be suited to attacking enemy positions when tanks were available was simply incorrect and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the author. The rather short letter, more of a note about it, perhaps indicates that this was more of a whim than any properly considered design. Nonetheless, the idea was recorded and preserved even though the concept was completely disregarded.

Front view of Melvaine’s concept. Photo: Author’s

Specifications

Dimensions 2.5 x 2 x 2 meters
Crew 1
Armament : Single Machine Gun and Hand-Grenades
Armor Bullet Proof

Links & Resources

Australian Army Inventions File 154142, 1944

Categories
Cold War American Other Vehicles Improvised AFVs

Medium Tank M4A3 (105) HVSS ‘Porcupine’

U.S.A. (1950-53)
Communications Tank – 2-5 Converted

Ever since the earliest days of tanks and armored vehicles, special radio communications variants have been produced. After all, communication is, perhaps, the most important aspect of any military operation. Whether between infantry, airforce or armor, communications are key to a successful operation and maximizes coherence between various units. The earliest of these vehicles was the ‘Wireless Communications Tank’ based on the British Mk. I tank used in the First World War. In the Second World War, more appeared such as the German Kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen based on the Panzer I, and the Japanese Shi-Ki based on the Type 97 Chi-Ha.
In the Korean War (1950-1953), communication was key with Allied forces spread all over the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’, as it was called by the Korean people. With friendly forces always on the move, units realized there was a need for compact and mobile radio communication stations.
By the time of this War, the Medium Tank M4 was a largely outdated and plentiful vehicle to base such a vehicle on. This conversion became known as the ‘Porcupine’ after the multiple antennae that protruded from the tank. It was an extremely rare vehicle, and it is believed that only two to five of these field-conversions were produced.

Porcupine ‘Y53’, south of Panmunjom on 27th June 1952. Photo: Presidio Press

Medium Tank M4A3 (HVSS)

By the time of the Korean War, the M4 series had evolved into its final form, often referred to as the M4A3E8. To the Marines in Korea, they were known as the “Old Reliables”. Entering service late in the Second World War, this model featured an improved Horizontal Volute Spring Suspension (HVSS) that replaced the iconic Vertical Volute Spring Suspension (VVSS) of earlier models. This suspension allowed for a wider track, improving grip and lower ground pressure on softer ground.
Propulsion was provided by the Ford GAA all-aluminum 32-valve DOHC 60-degree, 525 HP, V8 gasoline/petrol engine. This could propel the tank to a top speed of 40 – 48 km/h (25 – 30 mph). Armor on the vehicle was up to 76 mm (3 in) thick. The tank had a crew of five, consisting of a commander, driver, co-driver/bow machine gunner, gunner, and loader.
Although a large number of the newer, 90mm gun armed M26 Pershings and M46 Pattons were dispatched to the Korean Peninsula, multiple variants of the E8 were also used in the Korean War. These included the regular M4A3(76)W HVSS, which was armed with the 76mm Tank Gun M1A1 or M1A2, the M4A3(105) HVSS, armed with the 105mm Howitzer M4, and finally, the POA-CWS-H5. This was a specialist version armed with both a 105mm Howitzer, and a coaxial flamethrower.

Choice of Tank

It would appear that every one of these converted M4s were 105mm howitzer armed M4A3(105) HVSSs. This highlights an interesting choice as there were not that many 105mm howitzer armed M4s deployed in Korea. There are few viable arguments to suggest why these tanks were used though.
In the Second World War, most M4 105s did not have power-traverse or elevation gears. By the time of Korea, these gears were added to most of the Howitzer M4s, but not all. This made the M4 105 turret extremely roomy, with more that enough space to add extra radio equipment. There is an element of redundancy in this argument however, as the August 1948 “Medium Tank Status” report stated that there were 1398 M4A3(105)s with HVSS and power traverse in the Army’s Inventory. An additional 521 M4A3(105)s with HVSS, but without power traverse were also listed. It is likely that the US Military would’ve prioritised the updated 105s, and taken them to Korea, albeit, in very small amounts.
However, another theory suggests that it was simply a matter of availability. In reality, the turret of the 76mm gun armed M4s was the larger of the two. M4A3(105) tanks would have been a logical choice as there was a potential surplus of the vehicles that would’ve have been available for conversion to utility vehicles such as this. This is possibly the most likely reason behind the vehicle choice.

One of the more extensive modifications with 8 Antennea. Photo: Public Domain

Specifications

Dimensions (LxWxH) 7.54 (without gun) x 2.99 x 2.97 m (24’7″ x 9’8″ x 9’7″)
Track width 0.59 m (1’11” ft.in)
Total weight, battle ready 30.3 tonnes (66,800 lbs)
Crew Possibly 5
Propulsion Ford GAA all-aluminum 32-valve DOHC 60-degree, V8 engine, 525 HP, V8 gasoline petrol engine
Maximum speed 40 – 48 km/h (25 – 30 mph) on road
Suspension Horizontal Volute Spring Suspension (HVSS)
Range 193 km (120 miles)
Armament None, all dummy or removed
Armor Maximum 76 mm (3 in)


‘Porcupine’ Y53, Korea 1952. Illustration by Tank Encyclopedia’s own AmazingAce, based on work by David Bocquelet.

Modifications


The above image and following information was provided by the “Sherman Minutia” website.
The photo shows one of the Communication Tanks and two M4 Dozer Tanks of the Provisional Tank Platoon on November 19, 1950, navigating the hazardously narrow road near the Funchilin Pass which was the 1st Marine Division Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Chosin Reservoir.
1, 2 & 3: At first glance the Communication Tank appears to be a conversion of a rare M4A3(75) HVSS tank due to the standard 75mm mantlet visible (1), but closer examination reveals the canvas mantlet cover attachment points (2) and the gun travel lock mounted lower on the glacis (3) both of which are characteristic of 105mm armed tanks. All of the Porcupines had dummy guns in an effort to look like regular gun tanks. To be precise, only the breech and other internal components were removed. The actual barrel of the gun remained intact and was fixed in place, either permanently resting in the travel-lock or rigidly facing forwards. The extra internal space was used for installing map tables and additional radios. All other armaments, such as the coaxial and bow-mounted machine guns, possibly even the cupola mounted .50 Cal (12.7mm) were also removed. Making them difficult to distinguish from regular tanks was part of their protection. The enemy had a harder job identifying a command vehicle to knock out.
4, 5, 6 & 7: A number of external modifications were made to the vehicle. These include a handrail added to the side of the turret (4) and an armored door added to the side of the hull (5). A large antennae mounting bracket was added to the side of the turret (6), as well as other points on the hull, for instance next to the driver’s hatch (7). The arrangement and amount of antenna added to the tanks appears to be unique to each vehicle. At least one of the Porcupines had as many as eight antennae.

Radio Equipment

The Radios added to the M4 were used for long-range communications. This included communication with Naval Vessels, aircraft, infantry units, and artillery batteries. A significant drawback of the high-amperage radios installed in these tanks was that they required a positive ground contact. As such, the radios could not be operated while the tank was on the move. When stopped to transmit, a steel stake connected to the earthing cable would be driven into the ground during operation.
Radio equipment may have included the AN/VRC-3. The AN/VRC-3 was simply a vehicle-mounted version of the SCR-300 which had an approximate range of 3 miles (4.8 km). Looking at photos, at least one of the tanks used an AB-15/GR antenna.
In reference to the fact that some of the vehicles were adorned with up to eight antennae, the tank acquired the unofficial nickname of “Porcupine” after the spine-covered mammal.

Service

Not much is known about the Porcupine’s career in the Korean War. It is hard to say when exactly they appeared in US Marine Corps. One of the earliest reported sightings of a Porcupine was between the 14th and 19th November 1950. That night, a Porcupine with the designation ‘Y51’ was documented as passing along the Marine’s treacherous main supply route (MSR) through the Taebaek mountains, accompanied by the entirety of the 9-Tank-Strong 1st Marine Division Flame Tank Platoon, a command tank and a recovery tank of the Headquarters and Service Company, First Tank Battalion.
In March 1952, the Marines began to relocate from the East coast of the Korean Peninsula to the West. To do this they would travel to the small port town of Sokcho-ri where LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) were waiting to take them around the Korean coast to the Port of Inchon which had previously been taken earlier in the War. A Porcupine (ID number unknown) was recorded as being loaded onto an LST identified as No. 1138, with the nine tanks of the 1st Flame Platoon, three M4 Dozers and a Company of M4A3 (76) HVSS tanks of the Korean Marine Corps (KMC).
The next known location of one of the Porcupines, identified as ‘Y53’ was south of Panmunjom, (the future site of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement) on 27th June 1952.
Unfortunately, more is not known about this tank and its part in the Korean War. As it is an extremely rare vehicle, photographs and documented information are hard to find. It is highly unlikely that any of the vehicles survive today.

M46 ‘Porcupine’

An even rarer vehicle is the Porcupine variant of the Medium Tank M46 Patton. No pictures seem to survive of this vehicle, but there is a report of at least one in action as part of Operation Clambake on the Jamestown Line on the 3rd February 1953. The tank was under the command of Captain Clyde Hunter. It was equipped with six-radios.

An article by Mark Nash

Links & Resources

www,radionerds.com: (1) (2)
Brian Branson, US Military Radio enthusiast.
Pierre Olivier and Joe DeMarco of the ‘Sherman Minutia
Presidio Press, Sherman: A History of the American Medium Tank, R. P. Hunnicutt.
Turner Press, Hearts of Iron: The Epic Struggle of The 1st Marine Flame Tank Platoon: Korean War 1950-1953, Jerry Ravino and Jack Carty

Categories
German Improvized AFVs Improvised AFVs

Panzerkampfwagen KV-1B 756(r) (KV-1 with 7.5cm KwK 40)

Nazi Germany (1942-43)
Improvised Heavy Tank – 1 Built

Throughout the Second World War, the German Army captured hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles from countries it invaded. The same was true during the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Germans frequently made upgrades and modifications to fit their needs. This process spawned one of the larger armored vehicle enigmas to come out of the War.
This was the KV-1 that was captured and then re-armed with the 7.5cm KwK 40 gun. Not much is known about the history of this improvisation, and there is only one known photo to prove its existence.
It is not the only tank of the Second World War that was retrofitted in the field to accept a gun from another nation. Other examples include the Churchill NA 75 which was a British Churchill tank modified to accept the American 75mm Tank Gun and the Matilda II that was modified to accept the 76mm ZiS-5 gun. In both of these cases, of course, they were not captured vehicles.

The only known image of the modified KV-1.

Background, the KV-1

The KV-1 was the unsuspecting winner of a Soviet contract for a new heavy tank to replace the obsolete T-35A Multi Turreted Heavy Tank. The KV tank beat the SMK and T-100 to make it to mass production. Immediately prior to the invasion of the USSR in June 1941, roughly 508 KV-1 tanks were in Red Army service.
The KV-1 was an unpleasant surprise to the advancing Germans in June 1941, due to its excellent armor protection. The KV-1 quickly gained a fearsome reputation on the battlefield, being able to withstand point-blank shots from the standard 37mm anti tank guns fielded by Germany. Many KV-1s returned from combat peppered with dents and gouges from ricochets which had failed to penetrate its armor. However, the KV-1s made little impact on the actual fighting during the months of Operation Barbarossa with the exception of a small number of engagements. Poor crew training, poor logistical support and inept command and control meant that the Soviet tanks, including the mighty KV-1, where deployed in small packets that were easily swallowed and terminated by the better organized German units.
The KV-1 tank weighed 45 tonnes, and was powered by the 660hp V2K engine. The suspension was the first Soviet use of torsion bars, and it consisted of six road wheels, a rear drive wheel, a large front idler wheel and three return rollers. The tank had a crew of five. Soviet engineers constantly updated the tank and, between 1941 and 1942, the armor was thickened from 90mm to 200mm in places. The firepower was improved too, from the 30.2 calibre long F-32 76.2mm gun, to the 42.5 calibre long 76.2mm Zis-5 gun. The F-32 gun could penetrate 50mm of armor at 1,000m, whereas the Zis-5 gun could penetrate 60mm of armor at the same range. In 1942, this made the gun a significant threat to most German tanks. However, the gun was similar to the one on the T-34 medium tank, which was far more mobile and far cheaper to build.

KVs in German Service

When the Wehrmacht first encountered the KV-1, they were horrified and greatly impressed with its capability to take extreme punishment from the main German tank and anti-tank guns of the time. Contrary to popular belief, there were only a handful of KV-1 tanks that were ever pressed into German service. The captured tanks were known as ‘Beutepanzer’ or trophy tanks.
In 1941, the Germans had a categorizing system for those units captured from the enemy, this was an “Ebeuten” number. The number for KV tanks of all sub-types was “E I”. The overwhelming majority of these tanks were either dismantled at the roadside, or returned to the Reich for museums or testing. However, there were some KV tanks pressed into Wehrmacht service.

Beutepanzer KV-1 ‘1’ of the of the 8th Panzer Division. Photo: SOURCE
The earliest known Beutepanzer KV-1s, which in the German numbering system were known as the Pz.KpfW KV-1a 753 (r) (r = Russia) were deployed in the Autumn of 1941. German changes were minimal, with most Beutepanzer KV-1s retaining the original Soviet radio and equipment, however, occasionally German radios and tool sets were issued. The most interesting German acquisitions were the two OKV-1 tanks pressed into service. The Kirov works in Leningrad had manufactured six prototype flame throwing KV tanks, with a flame unit in the hull. All were used in combat, and two were subsequently pressed into Wehrmacht service after their capture.
Between 1941 and 1943, the German army likely dealt with thousands of lost KV tanks, of which perhaps several hundred were captured in working condition. It is thought however that less than 50 KV-1 tanks were pressed into German service. A multitude of factors can explain this, from lack of spare parts, to German overconfidence in their own tanks, to the Nazi ideological doctrine that viewed anything manufactured by a Slavic race to be inferior.

German Modification

The specific model of KV-1 that this conversion was based upon was a 1942 model, manufactured at Factory 100 Chelyabinsk (ChTZ) and was probably manufactured in the first or second quarter of 1942. It was fitted with the applique armor on the nose, and on the glacis plate which increased the armor up to 200mm (7.9 in) thick in places. It was equipped with the lightweight cast turret. Sometimes, this model also carried a heavyweight cast, or simplified welded turret. Standard armament remained the same, being the 76mm ZiS-5 gun. In German service, this was designated as the Pz.Kpfw KV-1B 755(r). This modified version was designated Pz.Kpfw KV-1B 756(r). The construction work was carried out by the maintenance battalion of Panzer Regiment 204 of the 22nd Panzer Division.

Gun

The most drastic modification to this single KV was the alteration made to the main armament. The original Soviet 76mm ZiS-5 gun was removed to make way for the German’s own 7.5cm KwK 40 L/43.

Diagram of the L/43 gun in its standard mounting, the Panzer IV
This gun was derived from the 7.5cm PaK 40, a towed anti-tank gun that entered service in 1942. In 1942-43, the gun was also mounted on Germany’s main medium tank, the Panzerkampfwagen IV, replacing the short barreled 7.5cm KwK 37 howitzer. Tanks with this new armament were designated as the Panzer IV Ausf.F2. It was a deadly weapon, with a range of ammunition types. These included Armour Piercing Capped Ballistic Cap (APCBC), Armor-Piercing Composite Rigid (APCR) and High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT). The APCBC was its most deadly round, able to penetrate a maximum of 99mm (3.9 in) of armor.
At this time, the 7.5cm KwK L/43 was a rare gun, as only 135 Panzers were equipped with it. One these tanks must have been irreparably damaged in action, but retained an operable gun that was able to be cannibalized. Though the ZiS gun was removed, the mantlet was retained. The new gun was posted through the void breach first and mounted into position, complete with its coaxial MG 34 machine gun. It is unknown as to what internal modifications took place concerning the placement of the trunnions and elevation/depression gears. Being the more powerful gun, the KwK 40 was larger in the breach than the ZiS. The 7.5cm shell was 100mm longer than the 76mm shell of the ZiS, meaning the breach was also 100mm longer. Recoil length would also have been longer, meaning there was even less room behind the gun.

Turret Changes

Minor modifications were also made to the turret. A salvaged commander’s cupola from either a Panzer III or Panzer IV (It is unclear which one it is) was added atop the turret. This was not added over the original commander’s hatch at the rear of the turret. A new hole was cut in the roof towards the right front of the turret, and the cupola added above it. This cupola gave the commander far better visibility, allowing him to spot targets, navigate terrain and observe friendly units easier.
On the left, an air filter was added, with a cover salvaged from a T-34.

But, Why?

A great deal of time was spent theorizing this matter by both authors of this article. The conversion of just this one vehicle would have been time and resource consuming. Other vehicles that were modified in such a way, such as the Churchill NA 75 and Matilda II with ZiS-5 which are mentioned in the introduction, had a designed purpose. The idea behind the Churchill NA 75 was to make use of guns from wrecked tanks, and give the poorly armed Churchill more Anti-Armor and High-Explosive firepower. The same was true for the Matilda, the original 2-Pounder gun of which was considered useless by the Soviets.
This KV, however, seems to lack any recorded intention. The German 7.5cm KwK 40 was a much better gun than the Soviet ZiS-5 76mm. At 1000 meters, the ZiS could only penetrate 61mm of armor, at the same distance, the 7.5cm could punch through 82mm. Ammunition may also have been a factor, as it would’ve been far easier for the Germans to resupply with 7.5cm ammunition than 76mm ammunition.
These are the only practical advantages of adding this gun to the KV. The KV, at this time, was one of the best heavy tanks in the war, and as already discussed, the Germans already had a number of captured examples in their arsenal. It may be that this was intended as somewhat of an ‘Anti-KV’ or ‘Anti-T-34’ vehicle. The Soviets’ own 76mm Gun could not penetrate the front of a standard KV-1 (without 200mm armor) or T-34 at 1000m. The German 7.5cm could handle both. Putting this gun on a chassis the 76mm could not penetrate would prove deadly to any Soviet vehicle facing it.
There is, however, an element of redundancy in the project worth highlighting. At the time this vehicle was built, German vehicles such as the Panzer IV (with long 75mm), Panzer V Panther, Panzer VI Tiger, and Panzerjager Tiger (P) were appearing. All of these, while still teething, were adequately armed so that the armor on the T-34 and KV-1 did not provide the advantage they had. With the 8.8cm gun or high velocity 7.5cm gun both the T34 and KV-1 were much more vulnerable.
The most logical conclusion as to why this KV was modified in this way is therefore that it was simply a culmination of spare parts and ingenuity.
This KV was apparently active at Kursk, but further details of this are scarce.

An article by Mark Nash and Frankie Pulham

Specifications

Dimensions (L-w-h) 5.8 x 4.2 x 2.32 m (19.2×13.78×7.61 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 45 tonnes
Crew 4 (commander, driver, 2 gunners)
Propulsion V12 diesel V2, 600 bhp (400 kW)
Maximum Speed 38 km/h (26 mph)
Range (road/off road) 200 km (140 mi)
Armament 7.5cm KwK 40 L/43
2x DT 7.62 mm machine-guns 1x MG 34 7.92mm machine gun
Armor 30 to 100 mm (1.18-3.93 in)
Total Convered 1

Links, Resources & Further Reading

Panzer Tracts No.19-2 – Beutepanzer – British, American, Russian and Italian Tanks Captured From 1940 to 1945, Thomas L. Jentz & Werner Regenberg
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #17: KV-1 & 2 Heavy Tanks 1939-45
Frontline Illustrated, History of the KV Tank, Part 1, 1939-1941, M Kolomiets.
beutepanzer.ru


The Panzerkampfwagen KV-1B 756(r) with added 7.5cm KwK 40. Illustrated by Tank Enyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.

Categories
German Improvized AFVs Improvised AFVs

Ersatz M10s – Panthers in Disguise

Nazi Germany (1944)
Medium Tank – 10 Disguised

Over centuries of war, elaborate disguises have been used many times to hide a combatant’s true force or intention. This spans from the famous Trojan Horse of the Trojan Wars to the fake spying trees of the First World War. In World War Two, the German Wehrmacht employed such tactics in quite an elaborate fashion.
In winter 1944, the Battle of the Bulge was in full swing. As part of a special operation, codenamed Greif, the Germans employed an even more elaborate deception. This involved taking multiple Panzerkampfwagen V Panthers and disguising them as the American M10 ‘Wolverine’ Tank Destroyer. To quote the fictional Captain George Mainwaring; “this is just the sort of shabby trick the Nazis would play”.

Background, Operation Greif

The brainchild of Adolf Hitler and commanded by Waffen-SS Commando Otto Skorzeny, Operation Greif (meaning Griffin) was part of an elaborate special operation during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944. Skorzeny had become one of Hitler’s most trusted operatives, especially after he succeeded in the rescue of Benito Mussolini in the autumn of 1943.

A head-on view of one of the disguised Panther’s after it was knocked out. Note the crudely painted American stars and unit markings on the bow. Photo: lonesentry.com
Skorzeny was ordered to form Panzer Brigade 150 whose role would be to capture as many bridges over the Meuse river as possible. The twist to the operation was that the troops in the Brigade would be disguised as British and American troops and also use the enemy’s equipment, vehicles, and tanks. The hope was that it would lead to catastrophic confusion.
The SS Commando was concerned, however. With his men in disguise, they were in breach of the Hague Convention of 1907 (Part IV, Section II, Chapter II). This meant, that if any of his troops were to be captured in the uniforms of British or American soldiers, they could be shot as spies.

Panzer Brigade 150

With the Ardennes Offensive looming on the horizon, Skorzeny only had a matter of weeks to assemble his brigade. 3,300 troops were requested in total to fill three battalions. Part of the request was that the troops have general knowledge of the English language or American dialects. The Western German Army Command (OB West) was charged with finding the needed US and British equipment. This included 15 tanks, 20 self-propelled guns, 20 armored cars, 100 jeeps, 40 motorcycles and 120 trucks. They were also tasked with collecting as many British and American Uniforms as possible. Once gathered, the equipment would be sent to the Brigade’s training ground which was set up in eastern Bavaria at Grafenwöhr.
What was delivered to the training ground fell far short of Skorzeny’s requests. Of the 3,300 men requested, only around 400 spoke any kind of English. The best English speakers, 150 of them, were formed into a commando unit known as Einheit Stielau. To fill the gaps in the infantry, Skorzeny recruited from other corps such as the SS-Jagdverbände, SS-Fallschirmjäger, Paratroopers and tank crews from other Panzer Regiments and Brigades. This still did not meet the desired 3,300 men, 2,500 would be all Skorzeny had to deploy. The Brigade was scaled back to two battalions to cope with the smaller than anticipated number of infantry.
Infantry numbers were not the only disappointment. Far fewer captured Allied vehicles were available than anticipated. Just 49 unarmored vehicles were delivered. The shortfall was met with German Army vehicles repainted in the American Olive-Drab. What was worse, however, was that of the 15 requested captured Allied tanks or ‘Beutepanzers,’ only two American M4 Shermans in an ill state of repair were delivered.
To cover the gap left by these decrepit M4s, Skorzeny employed five of Germany’s own tanks, the Panzer V Panther. But, to blend in with the operation, modifications had to be made.

45-ton Cuckoo

Defined as a medium tank, the Panzerkampfwagen V Panther entered service in 1943 in response to the Soviet T-34. It had armor of up to 80mm, with the upper glacis sloped at 35 degrees. The tank was powered by a Maybach HL230 P30 V-12 rated at 690 hp, producing a top speed of up to 34 mph (55 km/h).
The Panther was armed with the 7.5 cm (75mm) KwK 42 L/70 which could penetrate up to 199mm of armor at 1000 yards. It also had a bow and coaxially mounted MG 34 7.92mm Machine Guns. It was operated by a five-man crew; Commander, Gunner, Loader, Driver, Bow Gunner/Radio-Operator.
The particular Panthers chosen for Operation Greif were Ausfuhrung Gs. The Ausf. G was produced from March 1944. It was the last model of Panther to be produced in large numbers and featured a number of changes over the previous models that were originally intended for introduction on the canceled Panther II. This included thicker side armor, the addition of a wedge on the bottom of the mantlet to eliminate the shot trap, and the deletion of the driver’s vision port in exchange for a rotating periscope above his position.

Modifications

For the Panthers to assume the appearance of the Allies’ M10 Tank Destroyer, a number of cosmetic changes had to be made.
The description of the changes is based on information from the issue 57 of the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends, published in April 1945. As it is a wartime intelligence publication, some data may be missing or may be inaccurate.

Turret

The turret saw the heaviest application of this ‘camoflage’. To replicate the M10’s unique turret shape, five sections of sheet metal around 3.4 mm thick were cut. Two pieces were cut to mirror the turret sides. These were flanged and bent into shape, supported by iron bars. Two more pieces were placed on the rear of the turret to represent the lower bustle and counterweight and were strengthened with iron bars. This counter weight piece is mysterious, as there appears to be no visual record of it. These four pieces were then attached together, and the frame work welded to the turret. Even the smallest M10 turret details were closely studied and replicated, including the lifting eyes, brackets and the attachment points for appliqué armor.
A false gun shield was manufactured and welded to the Panther’s own. A hole was made for the coaxial machine gun, something the original M10 did not require as it did not have one.
The most drastic change to the turret came with the removal of the iconic German Commander’s cupola. Having been cut out, it was replaced by a simple two-piece hatch. Each piece was hinged for opening. No vision devices were added, so the commander was now effectively blind when buttoned down.

A close up look of the modifications to the turret. Photo: lonesentry.com

Hull

Bow: The hull saw the heaviest application of fabricated M10 parts. Roughly four pieces of sheet metal, all 3.5mm thick, were carefully formed and welded into place to replicate the iconic bulbous transmission housing on the bow of M4 derived tanks. A further sheet of metal was welded over the upper glacis. A trap door attached to a chain was cut into the piece to allow use of the bow MG 34 Machine Gun. As with the turret, the appropriate towing eyes and brackets were applied to these pieces.
Sides: In an attempt to replicate the sloping side armor of the M10 which overlaps the return of the track, a long piece of sheet metal was cut and welded horizontally along the flanks, replacing the Schurzen side armor. Three blocks of spare track links were also added along the sides replicating the stowage pattern used on the M10. All external stowage such as the pioneer tools, ramming staff water cans and jacks were removed.
Rear: The rear of the Panther saw the addition of a false rear. A box like frame was welded together from 4-5 pieces of sheet metal and welded to the rear of the tank. This was attached in place of the two large stowage boxes to replicate the overhanging tail of the M10. Holes were cut in the seam along the top for the exhaust pipes. On the top of this box, a replica of the M10s fixed gun rest was also welded into place.
Paint: Paintwork was the final step in the disguise. The entire tank was painted in a reproduction of the typical American Olive Drab paint. Allied star markings were applied to the upper glacis and also to the sides and roof of the turret. False unit markings were also applied to the bow and rear.

Undisguised Parts

There were parts of the Panther that were too hard to disguise too. The biggest issue, of course, being the classic German overlapping road wheels which looked nothing like the VVSS (Vertical Volute Spring Suspension) of the M10. The tracks were also much thicker. Another was the muzzle brake of the L/70 which had to be retained for the gun to operate safely and effectively. Apart from the British 17-Pdr Achilles variant, the M10 did not have a muzzle brake. The overall size of the Panther was an issue too, as it was wider, longer and taller than the M10.

The overlapping road wheels were impossible to mask, as displayed by this knocked out disguised Panther. Photo: SOURCE
M10 Ersatz
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One of the 10 Panther Ausf. Gs that was disguised as an Allied M10 Tank Destroyer. Operation Grief, December 1944. (Click to see full image)


A standard allied M10 “Wolverine” for comparison. This is the appearance that the 150 were aiming for. 


Standard Panther Ausf. G for comparison. With this, you can see the how extensive the modifications were.

All illustrations are by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.


Action

In action, the disguised Panthers used a number of methods to signify to surrounding German forces that it was indeed a friendly vehicle. This included painting a subtle yellow triangle on the rear of the tank. Another method was that all the disguised tanks would have their guns aligned in certain direction.
Before the operation started, rumours began to spread among the troops about the Brigade’s purpose. The troops believed they would be reinforcing besieged towns such as Dunkirk, Lorient, another was that they were to capture Antwerp. The most elaborate speculation was that their orders were to capture the Allied Supreme Command at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe (SHAFE) in Paris. Not even Skorzeny’s own commanders knew about the true plan. Just 4 days before the beginning of the operation on the 10th of December, would they know.
On the 14th of December, the 150th Brigade was assembled near the historic town of Bad Münstereifel moving out on the 16th. The aim was to capture two or more bridges over the River Meuse at Amay, Huy and Andenne. The brigade was supported by three Panzer divisions; 1st SS Panzer Division, 12th SS Panzer Division, 12th Volksgrenadier Division. The bridges were divided between the three battle-groups that would each hold a bridge until they could be destroyed, which would prevent the Allies from crossing. It was hoped that the confusion caused by the Allies receiving fire from what appeared to be friendly vehicles and troops would play into the hands of the Wehrmacht, and in turn increasing the likelihood of success.
However, the brigade became delayed by two days after the 1st SS Panzer Division failed to link up at the starting point. With this 48 hour delay, Skorzeny realized that the original plan was now doomed. As a result of this failure, Skorzeny attended a meeting at the 6th Panzer Army’s Headquarters where he suggested that his brigade take on the role of a normal army panzer unit. This was approved, and the Commander was ordered to assemble his forces south of the Belgian municipality of Malmedy.

A disguised Panther knocked out by American forces, coincidentally under a ‘Chevrolet’ sign. Photo: SOURCE
Under Skorzeny’s command, the Brigade moved out on the 21st of December 1944 in an attempt to take Malmedy. The 150th tried several times to take the town, but they were repelled by the defending American forces, including the 120th Infantry Division, every time with heavy artillery support. Private Francis Currey of the 120th received the Congressional Medal of Honor after he managed to knock one of the tanks out with a Bazooka.
The artillery pummeled the 150th into submission, taking a heavy toll on the brigade. Even Skorzeny himself was wounded by shrapnel. Skorzeny’s unit would be the German’s only attempt to take Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge.

Aftermath

Operation Greif succeeded in causing a great deal of confusion in American and Allied forces. Spies were thought to be everywhere. It was even thought at one point that there may be an attempt to kidnap General Eisenhower. This paranoia spawned from a German commando team which was captured on the 17th of December where one of the commandos told their captors that there was a plan to capture the general.
A number of friendly-fire incidents also occurred as a result of the confusion. On the 20th of December, two American GIs were shot at a checkpoint by a military policeman in a case of mistaken identity. Such incidents continued to happen into early 1945, when two more were killed and several injured when the US 6th Armored Division engaged the 35th Infantry Division by mistake near Bastogne.

A group of civilians pose for a photo next to one of the knocked out Panthers. Photo: SOURCE

Investigating the Tanks

In total, four of the Ersatz M10s were knocked out during the battle. After the action, the Ordnance Intelligence department investigated the hulks of these Trojan Horses.
From numbers found on the tanks, it was thought that there were at least ten converted vehicles. The destroyed vehicles they studied had the identifying numbers of B-4, B-5, B-7, and B-10. In the more intact wrecks, investigators found American uniforms including overcoats, helmets, and trousers.
The investigators surmised that had the tanks been deployed with a bit more care and cover, they would’ve been extremely effective and dealt considerable damage. Not much is known about the tanks from this point on. After the investigation, they were likely scrapped. None of the Ersatz M10s survive today.


These Photos: SOURCE

An article by Mark Nash
For our U.K. readers, this article can also be found in the August 2018 issue of ‘Classic Military Vehicle‘ Magazine.

Panther specifications

Dimensions (L-w-h) 6.87/8.66 x3.27 x2.99 m (22.54/28.41 x10.73 x9.81 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 44.8 tons max. (98,767 lbs)
Armament Main: 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 42 L/70, 79 rounds
Sec: 2x 7.9 mm (0.31 in) MG 34, 5100 rounds
Armor Sloped, from 15 to 120 mm (0.59-4.72 in)
Crew 5 (commander, driver, gunner, loader, radioman/machine gunner)
Propulsion V12 Maybach HL230 P2 gasoline, 690 hp (515 kW)
Transmission ZF AK 7-200 7-forward/1-reverse gearbox
Suspensions Double torsion bars and interleaved wheels
Speed (late model) 48 km/h (29 mph)
Operational range 250 km (160 mi)
Vehicles Disquised 10
For information about abbreviations check the Lexical Index

Links, Resources & Further Reading

Panzer Tracts No.5-3, Panzerkampfwagen “Panther” Ausfuehrung G, Thomas L. Jentz & Hilary L. Doyle.
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #22: Panther Variants 1942–45
Stackpole Military History Series, Battle of the Bulge, Vol. 2: Hell at Bütgenbach / Seize the Bridges, Hans J. Wijers
Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 57, April 1945 (READ HERE)

Categories
Improvised AFVs WW2 US Flame Throwers

Light Tank M3A1 Satan

U.S.A. (1943)
Light Tank – 24 Converted

By mid-1943, light tanks – namely the M3 – had proven to be redundant in the Pacific theatre. Their small size was ill-suited to the harsh terrain, and their limited firepower put them at great risk of being overrun by Japanese infantry. The tanks would find a second wind, however.
Starting life as a field expedient, the M3A1 Satan was one of the first flame thrower tanks the United States Marine Corps (USMC) had in their inventory. Built on the chassis of these redundant light tanks, specifically M3A1s, the Satan was also one of the first flame tanks the Marines were able to field during the Pacific Campaign of World War II, with its first deployment coming mid-1944.

The Host

The M3 was the standard Light Tank in American service, replacing the earlier M2. The M3A1 model was introduced in May 1942 and featured some changes from the standard M3 model. The A1 featured the same 220 hp Twin Cadillac Series 42 engine and Vertical Volute Spring Suspension (VVSS). It also retained the same 37mm (1.4”) M6 Tank Gun supplied with Armor Piercing (AP), High Explosive (HE) and Canister Rounds. The A1 came with an improved turret design which including the addition of a turret basket, which the early model was without. It also had a higher M20 AA mount for a Browning M1919 .30 Cal. (7.62 mm) Machine gun. This negated the need for the sponson mounted Browning machine guns found on the original M3. As such they were removed, the three remaining Brownings (bow, coaxial, AA mount) being judged sufficient for the task.
The tanks were used extensively by the US Marines in the Pacific up to mid-1943 when they were beginning to fall out of favor with the troops due to reasons already discussed above. More medium tanks such as the M4A2 Sherman started to become available to the Marine Corps, and as such, these tanks started to take precedence.

Hellspawn

Japanese concrete bunkers were the bane of the US Marines in their island hopping battles of the Pacific. Often these bunkers were upwards of two-feet (24 inches) thick. The 37mm (1.4”) gun of the M3 and even the 75mm (2.95”) gun of the M4 could barely scratch these structures. As such, thoughts turned to attacking them with flamethrowers.
Prior to the arrival of flamethrower equipped tanks, the Marines in the Pacific had relied upon the US Army’s M1A1 infantry flamethrower. The tactic would be to get as close to the bunker as possible and spray the flame into the openings of the bunker. The M1A1 required close quarters operation, however, as the weapon had an extremely short range. The operator was also vulnerable. Apart from the obvious risks of carrying highly flammable liquid on his back in a war zone, the gear was heavy. This made the operator sluggish and top heavy; an easy target.
In early 1943, after the grim experiences of Guadalcanal, both the US Army and Marine Corps began drawing up plans to somehow mount the M1A1 flame equipment on the M3 Light tank. The first attempt was to simply fire the M1A1 through the pistol port of the M3’s turret, this was far from ideal as it gave a limited field of fire. This led to the idea of mounting the flame projector in place of the bow machine gun. This setup also allowed 2 additional units of flamethrower fuel to be carried in internal tanks.

The flamethrower mounted in the bow machine gun position. Photo: Osprey Publishing
The first action for this configuration was by B Company, 1st Tank Battalion during the fighting on the Arawe Peninsula in support of infantry from the Army’s 112th Cavalry. A M3A1 equipped with M1A1 flamethrower attacked a Japanese bunker that was suppressing the attacking infantry. The flamethrower operator succeeded in spraying the liquid through the bunker openings. However, the fuel failed to ignite, which led to an extremely brave action from the operator in which he opened his hatch and threw a thermite grenade onto the fuel. This promptly ignited the fuel, putting the bunker and its defenders out of action. These type of flame tanks were also used by the Army along Torokina river on Bougainville, early 1944.
Conscious of these improvised M1A1 mountings, both the Army and Marine Corps technicians in the Central Pacific attempted their own versions. The Honolulu Iron Works developed an enlarged fuel tank to increase the flamethrower’s capacity and extend the amount of flame it can produce. They were mounted on M3 Light Tanks, as well as LVT “Amtracs”. The first, rather unsuccessful action that these vehicles took part in was during the fighting on the island of Kwajalein in early 1944. The vehicles ran into numerous problems, including salt damage to the projectors from the sea water causing failures in fuel ignition. Despite this, the Marines operated at least one of these vehicles as part of their 4th Tank Battalion in the fighting on Roi-Namur.

A M3A1 with the improvised bow flamethrower from B Company, 3rd Marine Tank Battalion, 10th October 1943. Photo: Osprey Publishing

The Rise of The Satan

The overall inadequate performance of the improvised flame throwers led the Marine Corps and Army to look elsewhere for a flamethrower system that could replace the main armament of a Tank. The flame equipment they chose was the Canadian built Ronson F.U.L Mk. IV. Ronson flamethrowers were first developed by the British Petroleum Warfare Department in 1940. The British abandoned work on the weapons, however, judging them to have insufficient range. The Canadians continued work on the equipment and were able to make it more effective. They even mounted it on the Wasp Mk. IIC, a flamethrower variant of the famous Universal Carrier.
About 40 Ronsons were shipped to the Central Pacific early in 1944 after they were requested by the famous Lieutenant General Holland ‘Howling Mad’ Smith, of the V Amphibious Corps. Here they took part in demonstrations for the heads of the respective services. So impressed was ‘Howling Mad’ Smith, that he approved the equipment.
The Ronson was mounted in the turret of the mothballed obsolete M3A1s. To mount the weapon, the 37mm gun main armament was removed. The mantlet was retained, but a wide tube was introduced into the void left by the absent gun barrel to protect the flame projector. The coaxial machine gun was retained on the right of the flame aperture, though some vehicles did have their bow machine guns deleted. On the inside of the tank, a huge 170-gallon fuel tank was introduced to give the weapon as much burn time as possible. The projector had a range of up to 80 yards. This conversion had an unfortunate side effect. The piping connected the projector to the fuel tank limited the turret traverse to 180 degrees left and right. The M3A1 Satan was born. In total, 24 of these improvised flamethrower tanks were produced by Army and Navy mechanics on Hawaii in time for the Marianas operations.

A Satan showing the maximum traverse range of its turret. Photo: United States National Archives


Illustration of the M3A1 Satan by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet

The Fires of Hell

These new tanks were formed into dedicated flame thrower companies in the Marines’ 2nd and 4th Tank Battalions. The vehicles were shared between the two battalions, with 12 Satans each. The battalions also received three new M5A1 light tanks each, to provide gunnery support for the flamethrowers.
The Satans saw their first action on the 15th of June 1944, during the landings on Saipan. The tanks were seldom deployed all at once, often being fielded four tanks at a time with gunnery support from one M5A1. Unfortunately, Marine commanders were not well versed in the concept of flame tanks, and as such the Satan was probably not used as much as it could have been. After the bitter fighting of the initial days of the assault, the commanders soon learned of the Satans effect. They were used in great numbers clearing Japanese cave-defenses and ‘mop-up’ operations, until the declaration that Saipan was secured, on the 9th of July 1944.

A M3A1 Satan comes ashore on Tinian. Photo: SOURCE
Two Satan companies were then deployed on Saipan’s neighboring island, Tinian. Satans saw extensive use on this island as its terrain was far more compatible with tank operations. Only one Satan, belonging to the Marine’s 4th Tank battalion was lost after it struck a mine. More were damaged, but repairable.
The Marines developed a standard operating procedure when attacking Japanese bunkers or cave defenses. Supporting M4A2s would crack open the bunker with round after round of High-Explosive, the Satan would then hose the area with flame followed by infantry assault squads that finish the job. A similar technique was employed by British troops in the ETO. Flame-throwing Churchill Crocodiles would often operate closely with the bunker-busting mortar armed Churchill AVREs. The AVRE would crack open a bunker, followed by the Crocodile hosing the breached area. The flaming liquid would then flow inside.

M3A1 Satan D-11 “Defense” of the 4th Tank Battalion in action July 1944. Photo: Osprey Publishing
The overall capability of the Satan became questionable, however, even after the victories on Saipan and Tinian. A number of issues were highlighted; unreliability, poor projection range, a poor arc of fire, faults with the electrical ignition system, cramped crew conditions. Coordination with infantry, a key part of Marine Tank tactics, was also hampered with the Satan as the radio was mounted in the right sponson, behind the flamethrower equipment.
The Satan demonstrated to Marine and Army heads the versatility of flamethrower tanks in the Pacific Campaign, but in this form, it was not tactically sound. As such, work would begin on finding a replacement for this improvised vehicle.

The crew of M3A1 D-21 ‘Dusty’ of Company D, 2nd Marine Tank Battalion. The tank was commanded by 1st Lt Alfred Zavda (second from left). The crew is posed on Saipan in June 1944 with other US Troops and are displaying captured Japanese weapons. Photo: Osprey Publishing

Exorcism

With lessons learned, the Satan would soon be replaced by Flamethrowers based on the M4A2, though there was a variant based on the newer M5A1 Light Tank, known as the E7-7 Mechanised Flamethrower. This was very similar to the Satan conversion of the M3A1.
Two options were available for the M4 based projects. The E4-5 ‘Auxiliary’ flamethrower, and the ‘primary’ POA-CWS-H1 (Pacific Ocean Area-Chemical Warfare Section-Hawaii-1). Auxiliary flamethrowers were so called because they supplemented the tanks existing main armament; the Primary type replaced the main armament completely.
M4s equipped with such flamethrower would serve the Marines with great effect until the end of the war, playing important parts in the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. No Satans seem to have survived the war. None are known to still exist at the time of this article’s writing.

An article by Mark Nash

M3 Stuart specifications

Dimensions 4.33 x 2.47 x 2.29 m
14.2×8.1×7.51 ft
Total weight, battle ready 14.7 tons
Crew 4
Propulsion Continental 7 cylinder petrol
250 hp – air cooled
Speed 58 km/h (36 mph) road
29 km/h (18 mph) off-road
Range 120 km at medium speed (74.5 mi)
Armament Ronson F.U.L Mk. IV Flame thrower
3 to 5 cal.30 (7.62 mm) M1919 machine guns
Armor From 13 to 51 mm (0.52-2 in)

Links, Resources & Further Reading

Presidio Press, Stuart – A History of the American Light Tank Vol. 1, R.P. Hunnicutt
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #186: US Marine Corps Tanks of World War II
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #206: US Flamethrower Tanks of World War II

Categories
Improvised AFVs WW2 British Infantry Tanks

Churchill NA 75

United Kingdom (1944)
Infantry Tank – 200 converted

The NA 75, a workshop improvised Churchill variant, is a testament to the ingenuity of one British officer, Captain Percy H. Morrell. An officer of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), Captain Morrell served in Tunisia and was charged with disassembling and breaking down battle damaged tanks, in particular, M4 Shermans.
The Captain noted that many of the 75 mm (2.95 in) M3 guns equipping the Shermans were still in an operational condition. As such, he began formulating a plan to make use of them by mounting them into the turret of Mk. IV Churchills.
These tanks would be designated as the Churchill NA 75. This was attributed to the vehicle’s place of birth, NA – North Africa, and the transferred 75 mm M3 gun.
Percy Hulme Morrell enlisted at Leeds on June 29th, 1940.
Percy Hulme Morrell enlisted at Leeds on June 29th, 1940. He rose through the ranks to be granted an emergency promotion to Second Lieutenant on February 6th, 1943. He was posted to North Africa in the April of that year – Photo: track48.com

Advantages

Morrell aimed to achieve 2 goals with one action. A noted weakness with the Churchill was the inability of its main armament to fire an effective HE (High Explosive) round. This was a problem faced by the Mk.I and II with their 2-Pounder guns, and the Mk. III and IV with the 6-Pounder. Both of these guns lacked a powerful HE round, so anti-infantry and emplacement operations were difficult. Because of this, ironically, an Infantry Tank was not able to properly support infantry. The Sherman’s 75 mm (2.95 in) M3 gun did not have this issue, as it was able to fire quite a potent HE round.
Morrell had also noted that many Churchills lost in battle around the Medjerde Valley and similar engagements, had received hits to the gun area. It was apparent that in the bright sun of the desert, the recessed mantlet caused a visible shadow, providing a clear aiming point for German gunners. High-velocity 75 mm (2.95 in) or 88 mm (3.46 in) shells hitting this area would either jam the weapon in place, pass straight through the mantlet or knock the whole thing clean off its trunnions.
The Sherman’s external mantlet, specifically the M34 type, provided a quick fix to this problem, giving this weak area a much need boost in armor protection. It was hoped that its curved shape might induce a ricochet and also obviously remove the dark recess aiming point.

Operation Whitehot

Captain Morrell’s concept drew enough interest for Major General W.S. Tope, Commander of REME in the Mediterranean theater, and John Jack, a civilian engineer from Vauxhall Ltd. to join him in Tunisia. They would assist Morrell with the project at the workshops in Bone. It was classified as “Top Secret” under the codename of “Operation Whitehot”.
A turret with the face re-cut for the adoption of the new mantlet and gun. The extra piece cut on the right is for the coaxial machine-gun - Photo: Haynes Publishing/Morrell Family Archive
A turret with the face re-cut for the adoption of the new mantlet and gun. The extra piece cut on the right is for the coaxial machine-gun – Photo: Haynes Publishing/Morrell Family Archive
Some 48 Mk.IV Churchills were the first to undergo the modification in North Africa. The method of inserting the gun was thus:
1: The Churchill Mk.IV’s standard issue armament, the Ordnance QF 6-Pounder (57mm), was removed. The removed 6-Pounder guns were returned to Ordnance Stores.
2: The original mantlet hole on the turret was widened.
3: The gun was rotated 180 degrees to suit the crew positions in the turret, and inserted, complete with the M34 mount.
4: The gun was welded in place, including the new external mantlet.
The turret also saw the addition of a counterweight in the rear due to the increased size of the armament. Room was also made on the left of the gun for the addition of the Sherman’s coaxial 30 cal. (7.62 mm) Browning M1919 machine gun. The machine gun only had a limited range of motion due to the cramped conditions. As such, it could not elevate as high as the main armament.
Almost complete turrets waiting to be mounted back onto their hulls. The mantlet is not yet added - Photo: Haynes Publishing/Morrell Family Archive
Almost complete turrets waiting to be mounted back onto their hulls. The mantlet is not yet added – Photo: Haynes Publishing/Morrell Family Archive
The tanks were tested under the supervision of Major ‘Dick’ Whittington, Gunnery Instructor at the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) Training Depot at Le Khroub. The Major commandeered a deserted Arabic village, which was ranged at 8,000 to 8,500 yards. The tanks, now armed with an effective HE round, rained shell after shell on the abandoned buildings. The tests were a success. It was surmised that the Churchill provided a much more stable firing platform which, unlike the Sherman, stood fast to the recoil of the gun, meaning the fire would be much more accurate.

The crew of an NA 75 with the name Boyne, take a break in the Italian sun. Boyne was part of 1 Troop 'B' Squadron.
The crew of a Churchill NA 75 with the name “Boyne”, take a break in the Italian sun. Boyne was part of 1 Troop ‘B’ Squadron. Commander Lieut B.E.S.King MC. The crew in the photo: Gunner, L/Cpl Cecil A.Cox with Operator, Cpl Bob Malseed. Boyne was later knocked out by a Panzer IV – Photo: www.ww2incolor.com
A group of NA 75s in Italy await action while the crews perform basic maintenance - Photo: Imperial War Museum
A group of Churchill NA 75s in Italy await action while the crews perform basic maintenance – Photo: Imperial War Museum
One of the first NA 75s photographed at the workshops in Bone, Tunisia.
One of the first Churchill NA 75s photographed at the workshops in Bone, Tunisia. Note how limited the elevation of the coaxial MG is. At full elevation, it is still a few degrees away from being inline with the 75 mm (2.95 in) – Photo: Haynes Publishing

Service

In total, 200 Churchill Mk.IVs were upgraded to the NA 75 standard. These would go on to serve in the Italian campaign, where Major General Tope commended their service with the 21st and 25th Tank Brigades in the month-long fighting between Arezzo and Florence.
A shortage of tanks meant that the Churchills would work alongside Shermans. Because of this, the Churchills would, for once, be used in their intended role as infantry support tanks. The Churchills would blast their way through the battlefield, while the faster Shermans and infantry exploited any breakthroughs.
Witnessing their success first hand, Tope sent a letter back to Morell: “I should be glad if you would congratulate the REME concerned on doing a quick job which had been most valuable to this brigade.” The NA 75 would go on to serve in Italy until the end of the war in 1945.
A Churchill NA 75 of the 25th Tank Brigade passes through the narrow streets of Montefiore, 11 September 1944
A Churchill NA 75 of the 25th Tank Brigade passes through the narrow streets of Montefiore, 11 September 1944.

Fate

Following the success of his upgrades and the flood of praise accompanying it, Captain Morrell was awarded the Military MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and received the promotion to Major.
Despite the lessons learned with the external mantlet, the Churchill would see out its career with its original recessed mantlet design. Had it have gone into service, the Churchill’s intended replacement, the Black Prince, would finally have done away with the recessed mantlet and used an external curved one.
It is not known whether any of the NA 75s survive today, but the vehicles remain a testament to “British Ingenuity”, and one man’s work to improve the fighting capabilities of his army.

An article by Mark Nash

Churchill NA 75

Dimensions 24ft 5in x 10ft 8in x 8ft 2in
(7.44 m x 3.25 m x 2.49 m)
Total weight Aprox. 40 tonnes
Crew 5 (driver, bow-gunner, gunner, commander, loader)
Propulsion 350 hp Bedford horizontally opposed twin-six petrol engine
Speed (road) 15 mph (24 km/h)
Armament 75 mm (2.95 in) M3 Tank Gun
Browning M1919 .30 Cal (7.62 mm) machine-gun
BESA 7.92mm (0.31 in) machine-gun
Armor From 25 to 152 mm (0.98-5.98 in)
Total production 200 upgraded

Links & Resources

Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #7 Churchill Infantry Tank 1941-51
Haynes Owners Workshop Manuals, Churchill Tank 1941-56 (all models). An insight into the history, development, production and role of the British Army tank of the Second Wold War.
Schiffer Publishing, Mr. Churchill’s Tank: The British Infantry Tank Mark IV, David Fletcher
Article about the NA 75


Tanks Encyclopedia’s own rendition of the Churchill NA 75 by David Bocquelet. This particular vehicle, “Adventurer”, is from A Company, as represented by the yellow triangle. A box would represent B company, A circle would be C company and a Diamond would be a HQ vehicle.

Categories
Improvised AFVs WW2 American Prototypes

Sutton Skunk

 USA (1932)

Tractor Tank – 1 prototype built

One-Armed Sutton’s masterpiece

The Sutton Skunk was a little-known tractor tank from early 1932, built for the Chinese export market by Frank ‘One-Arm’ Sutton – Englishman and adventurer. In his time, Sutton made many inventions, and this was perhaps one of his most ambitious. It was simply a Caterpillar 5-ton M1917 tractor that was borrowed from the military and armored up. Featuring two 82mm Stokes mortars and a pair of Browning machine guns, it was a fairly well-armed tankette, almost certainly designed with infantry support in mind.

Who was One-Armed Sutton?

Francis Arthur Sutton (1884-1944) was an English soldier and adventurer who spent no less than 29 years of his life traveling across the globe, having come up with various money-making schemes. His story begins in WWI, at Gallipoli whilst serving with the Royal Engineers. There, he lost part of his hand by throwing no less than six enemy grenades back into the trenches they were thrown from, with a seventh exploding in his hand, for which he earned the Military Cross, and the name “One-Armed Sutton“.
From 1915 onward, he began inventing various weapons such as heavy trench mortars and new fuse systems, which saw him travel to America in 1917 on business, after being released from duties with the British army. After earning a huge fortune for his designs, he invested his money in a gold-dredging business in Siberia. He traveled out there himself, but was forced to leave after the Red Army took control of Blagoveshchensk by 1921. After his dredging machinery was confiscated, he entered negotiations with a Red Army Commissar, who generously paid him off, and Sutton promptly left for Manchuria to cash the cheque the Commissar had written.
Finding the cheque to be good, he spent the next few years hopping back and forth between the two countries, but eventually had to stay in Manchuria, when he had spent all of his small fortune. In Manchuria, he became an advisor to Chinese Warlord Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-Lin), and was made a General of the Chinese Army. In 1927, however, he went to Canada, and invested his new fortune in real estate. However, as a result of the Great Depression, he lost that fortune in 1929.
He sold all of his possessions, bar two sets of clothes, paid off all of his debts, and with a few thousand dollars in hand, he began traveling across the USA to search for sponsorship for arms deals to China. His initial proposal to sell aircraft was rejected by most companies, but once he went to Peoria, Illinois, where the M1917 5-ton semi-armored tractor was built, he came up with an ingenious idea.
Sutton took a train to Philadelphia, and, somehow, convinced the Colonel Commandant of the Frankford Arsenal to lend him a tractor for “the purpose of taking some measurements”. He drove the tractor over to Henry Disston’s Steel Works and set to work…

Design

The Sutton Skunk was essentially an armored body placed on the Caterpillar semi-armored 5-ton M1917 artillery tractor. In 1918, the American Army had huge numbers of the tractor, and by 1932, still had 600 in surplus. Trying to get rid of them, the vehicles were actually up for sale, and the US army eventually lowered the price from $8000 ($140,000 in today’s money) to $800 ($14,000 in today’s money). This is likely one of the reasons that the Colonel simply lent federal property to the silver-tongued Sutton.
At Disston’s steel works, the back seats, fuel tanks, and other ‘unimportant’ components were stripped out, and Sutton said: “I’d like to see the Frankford Colonel’s face if he happened to walk in here now!
The engine and driver’s seat were enclosed in bullet-proof steel and he built a large superstructure on the rear, which made the vehicle eight feet tall. Two Browning machine guns were mounted on either side of the driver, forwards facing, in crude gun ports. There were also two pistol ports on both sides of the hull for automatic weapons and smoke grenades.
In the rear, two 82mm Stokes mortars were also fitted, which Sutton helped design a new and improved fuze for back in 1917 (which made him his first fortune). This was in fact the source of the name, as Sutton is reported as saying “I’m calling it the Sutton Skunk, as both big guns shoot out of the rear“. According to a technical drawing as included in “General of Fortune“, it seems as though the vehicle would only have one crew member, but it is probable that possibly one or two others would operate the guns.

Fate of the Sutton Skunk

Sutton had the intention of selling the vehicle to the Chinese, whom he had spent many years with, as mentioned, in service with one of the strongest warlords in China (in fact, Sutton deemed Zuolin the greatest of them all). For the far east, it could easily be deemed an excellent vehicle with serious export prospects, because whilst quite unimpressive to western militaries, it would impress the Chinese, who had little or no experience of armored warfare. The armaments might sound unimpressive in retrospect, but would be little need for a vehicle to combat other tanks. Apart from which, the Sutton Skunk would be fairly cheap.
However, this is where all clear-cut and clarified information on the Sutton Skunk ends.
Sutton stated that he was going to ship this prototype to China and sell them like hot cakes, and in August, 1932, he indeed sailed for Shanghai, but the only source for this journey is the book “General of Fortune“, which does not clearly state any substantial information about the negotiations behind the sale of the Sutton Skunk.
At this time China was preparing for war against Japan, that had already seized Manchuria practically unopposed, and the preparations for war were in the hands of a German Military Mission headed by General von Seekt. According to “General of Fortune” – “there was no need for talented amateurs like Sutton, nor his ingenious improvised tractor tank“. This seems to imply that he attempted the sale of the vehicle, but had to deal with the German military in doing so, and was ultimately unsuccessful.
In terms of selling arms to warlords, even though they still operated independently and therefore he could negotiate with each on a separate basis, he felt as though he had already fought with the best – Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-Lin), who died four years earlier in 1928. He simply refused to side with, and therefore sell arms to, any other warlord. There were also Communist rebels, but having had his fill of Communism in Siberia, Sutton refused to sell arms to them, too.

Possible arrival in China?

The fate of the prototype Sutton Skunk remains unknown, and it is unclear whether or not it was actually brought to China or not, as it is not mentioned again in the book ever again. It might even be possible that the vehicle was assembled, photographed, and returned to the Frankford Arsenal in one day.
According to Armour in China, Military Modelling Annual (1983) by Steven Zaloga, the Chinese were building improvised armored cars since 1930, and improvised tanks in 1932. There is clear photographic evidence for the existence of improvised armored cars in China, but none for the existence of improvised tanks. The Studebaker tank is a well-known mystery, and it was most probably smuggled in by foreign arms dealers.
In April, 1932 Marshal Liu Hsiang formed a unit for armored cars and tanks in Chongqing.
Liu Hsiang’s story is seemingly hard to trace, but according to “China’s Wings” by Gregory Crouch, in 1931, he controlled Sichuan Province (which is just next to Chongqing – therefore, the story makes sense at least geographically), a huge army, and plenty of airplanes smuggled from Indochina by French arms dealers.
It is suggested that six improvised tanks were built based on tractors – five on a Cletrac 20 featuring a Lewis Gun, and one on a larger Cletrac 30 featuring a Lewis Gun and a 37mm gun. However, there are no photographs of either vehicle.
The connection to the Sutton Skunk would be that the Chinese designs were inspired by the Sutton Skunk, thus proving that the Sutton Skunk did, in fact, make it to China. Unfortunately, Sutton set sail for China in August of 1932. Assuming that the date of April 1932 for the formation of the tank unit is correct (and, indeed, that it truly happened), then these Chinese tractor tanks seem to have developed independent of the Sutton Skunk earlier in the year. This also assumes that Sutton did not market the idea earlier in the year before setting sail to China, or that he did not send the Sutton Skunk to China before his departure in August.

Sutton’s final years

Sutton later moved to Korea with another mining operation, but he was expelled by the Japanese in 1941. He later died in a POW camp in Hong Kong in 1944; the amazing man lost to history. Sutton’s story was written about by use of diaries, journals, and letters in the 1963 biographical book by Charles Drage – “General of Fortune, the fabulous story of One-Arm Sutton“, but Sutton still remains an obscure footnote in history, this article only scratching at the surface of his story.

Sutton Skunk
Rendition of the Sutton Skunk.
Sutton Skunk
The schematic and only known photo of the Sutton Skunk, as taken from “General of Fortune, The fabulous story of One-Arm Sutton“, by Charles Drage.

Sidenote I: Stolen idea?

The Disston Tractor Tank was a slightly later and similar design that was most likely made after the Sutton Skunk (although information on both vehicles is very limited). The date of creation of the Disston is a very important fact, as it may be possible that the Disston company stole the concept and design elements from Sutton.
The Disston is almost as obscure as the Sutton Skunk, and its exact year of production is also hard to pinpoint. According to sources, the earliest possible year that the Disston was seen was in 1933, when the prototype was likely built, as the earliest known hard evidence suggests that the Disston was marketed in January 1934, with a photograph of the prototype included.
Either way, all evidence places the Disston being made after the Sutton Skunk. Whilst bearing the name “Disston” (likely as a marketing technique to use the trusted brand name), it was the idea of the Caterpillar Company, and therefore, the concept of this tractor tank appears to have developed independently of the Sutton Skunk. However, the Caterpillar Company was based Peoria, Illinois, where the Sutton Skunk was made, and it may have perhaps been seen by them. Also, the specifics of the deal between Disston and Caterpillar are unclear – it is known that Caterpillar supplied the tractors, which were, almost certainly armored up at the Disston works. That being the case, it remains unclear which company made the exact design, and it is possible that if Disston made the exact design, then elements of the Sutton Skunk were borrowed.
The book, “General of Fortune, the fabulous story of One-Arm Sutton“, the only source for the Sutton Skunk, reveals few details on the tank’s construction. It will remain unknown if the Disston Tractor Tank was inspired by the Sutton Skunk or not.

Sidenote II: Mercier Tank

The Mercier tank or “Aragón Tank” was a tank based on a Caterpillar 22 tractor from 1937 (during the Spanish Civil War). A single prototype was made at the Mercier works in Zaragoza, Nationalist-occupied Spain. It featured a pair of Hotchkiss machine guns mounted in a superstructure very similar to the Sutton Skunk, except for the machine guns being mounted in specially built mounts, as opposed to simplistic holes cut in the armor. The project was never developed past a single prototype, but it, strangely, looks very similar to the Sutton Skunk. There is no likely connection between the two.
mercier_1
The Mercier Tank or “Aragón Tank”, circa 1937. It looks very similar to the Sutton Skunk, but there is no likely connection between the two.

Sources:

General of Fortune, The fabulous story of One-Arm Sutton“, by Charles Drage, 1st edition, 1963
Arming the Chinese, the Western Armaments Trade in Warlord China, 1920-1928“, by Anthony B. Chan, 2nd edition, 2010
China’s Wings” by Gregory Crouch
Armour in China, Military Modelling Annual (1983) by Steven Zaloga
shushpanzer-ru.livejournal
ftr.wot-news.com
Letter correspondence from Otto Kafka to the Kuwaiti Minister of War

Categories
Improvised AFVs Mexican Armor Modern tanks Website news

Narco Tanks

los Zetas logo 2 Los Zetas (and other Cartels)
Improvised APCs (Circa 2010) – 120+ built (various designs)

The real Mad Max cars

Narco Tanks” (known as “Narco tanques” in Spanish) is an umbrella term made by the media for the improvised armored cars used by modern drugs cartels in Mexico. SUVs and commercial vehicles serve as the chassis for Narco Tanks, and they are tooled up with armor, turrets, mounted weapons, and even James Bond-like gadgets. They are seen mostly in the Mexican states bordering the USA because these areas have become zones of intense conflict between cartels competing for drugs smuggling routes into the USA. These vehicles typically look like something from the post-apocalyptic film, Mad Max, and were first reported at some point between 2010 and 2011; although the Mexican mass media is often deliberately slow to report on certain cartel-related stories for fear of reprisal attacks.
Created in illicit workshops, these vehicles are well-known for their exotic designs, but for the local Mexicans, they are weapons of an ever-escalating and ever-deadlier inter-cartel war that even the military has been involved in for over ten years.
Narco Tanks were first reported around 2010. They have seen prolific use until 2012, mostly in Tamaulipas, by Los Zetas (and sometimes other cartels), and some limited combat with the military has occurred.

Context: Los Zetas and the drugs trade

Los Zetas (The Z’s) has been described as the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous drugs cartel operating in Mexico. Perhaps surprisingly, it only began operating as a truly independent organization in 2010, but its roots stretch back the the late 1990s after a group of Mexican army commandos deserted and began working for Cártel del Golfo, one of the oldest cartels in Mexico. It appears as though these commandos formed the core of the Los Zetas contingent, and eventually split from Cártel del Golf – the exact reasons seems unclear, but the conglomerate structure of cartels means that fractures are fairly common.
Owing to the fact that their original members belonged to an elite military unit, Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (now Cuerpo de Fuerzas Especiales), Los Zetas members tend to be exceptionally well-trained in urban and commando combat. In fact, many of their members are also known to be former US army personnel, Guatemalan ex-special forces, and corrupt officials / police officers. Combining their elite membership with their proven brutality and vast array of military grade weapons, it is clear to see why this group is considered so dangerous.
Since 2010, Los Zetas has used Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (north east of Mexico, close to the border with Texas) as its base of operations.
Los Zetas are perhaps one of the most brutal cartels operating in Mexico, gaining infamy for events such as the massacre of 300+ civilians in Allende, Coahuila, north East Mexico, simply because two local men betrayed Los Zetas – this being just one of many other high profile incidents. Crucial to understanding the existence of Narco Tanks is that only half of the income of Los Zetas comes from drugs trafficking, whereas the other half comes from activities against civilians and war with other drugs cartels, which has, in turn, created a desire for armored vehicles.
Over the last ten years, Mexico has seen high levels of violence due to competition between cartels, each competing for control of drugs routes into the USA. Border areas very useful territory, as they give shorter smuggling trips, which means that there is less time and opportunity for the smugglers to be intercepted by Mexican authorities. Knowing the importance of this to a successful smuggling run, cartels are willing to fight for every single street in border areas.
This escalation in fighting, such as the murder of the local-police chief in Nuevo Laredo, has reportedly led to increased military efforts against the cartel. It is even reported (albeit without proper source citation) that there was a decision as early as 2000 by then-President Vicente Fox to send soldiers to fight against the cartels directly, seeing as though local law enforcement lacked the training and raw firepower to deal with the threat. Regardless of the authenticity of this report, it seems that there are some small evidence and reports of soldiers fighting against Los Zetas.
This increased fighting has meant that a small arms race has begun between rival cartels, who want strong firepower from vehicles (thus allowing them to perform fast and deadly mobile attacks) and effective protection for their crews during these attacks. As well as this, the role of the military may have meant that cartels have sought to protect their convoys in case of an ambush or quick strike mission.
However, it is important to keep in mind a broader context, as more than just an arms race has come as a result of cartel-violence. Conservative estimates give the figure of 70,000 for those killed in cartel-related attacks from 2006-2012, military intervention having greatly exacerbated this. Of course, this intervention was far from uncalled for, as massacres and constant cartel-related violence were on the rise before 2005.

Production of Narco Tanks

Narco Tanks are produced in improvised production lines or underground workshops which are hard to detect by law enforcement, and only two have been reported captured since 2011, the latest being in February 2015. Analysis of captured workshops by the military has shown that some vehicles had suspensions modified to take up to 30 tons of weight which allow the vehicles to feature armor of 5-25mm thick, which can withstand small arms fire and even 40mm military grenades.
These vehicles can differ greatly, having been based on SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) like the Ford F-350, and even larger vehicles like commercial vans, dumper trucks, and even tractors in rarer instances. Whilst cartels could probably afford military grade vehicles, they are large, conspicuous, and spare parts are not readily available. Whereas, larger civilian and commercial vehicles tend to blend in (as they would attract less attention from authorities, both on the road and during purchase), are easy to maintain, and spare parts are easy to come by.

Types of Narco Tanks

According to an article in Small Wars Journal by Robert J. Bunker, the Narco Tanks can be classified in five categories – I (Defensive), II (Defensive), III – Early (Offensive), III – Mature (Offensive), and IV (Offensive). Level I vehicles are hastily improvised vehicles with minor innovations, an example of such is the use ballistic vests inside a delivery truck to provide protection for cartel hit squads, as seen in one incident on July 11th, 1979, at Dadeland Mall, Florida. Indeed, this precedes the modern Narco Tank, but such vehicles are very likely to exist due to the reduced chance of attracting attention.
Level II vehicles tend to be professionally armored SUVs using internal armor kits, ballistic glass, and bullet-proof tires, all of which are common in Mexico. Since the late 1990s, middle-class civilians have begun purchasing these armor kits to protect themselves from kidnapping and general cartel violence. Furthermore, in recent years, these armor kits have become readily available at a low cost for mass consumption, seeing as though the market has grown so large, which means that they are even more common, and have become the most common type of Narco Tank.
Level III (early) vehicles have improvised pillboxes or similar firing positions on the bed of a truck, can possibly be armored, and have been seen around northeastern Mexico from 2010-2011.
Level III (mature) vehicles make up the bulk of sensationally photographed Narco Tanks (although many examples of Level III Early vehicles exist). They are usually (but not exclusively) work trucks featuring exterior armor, 5-25mm thick, gun ports, air conditioning for passengers, external gun mounts, battering rams, and even small turrets. The key difference between Level III and Level I-II vehicles it that Level III vehicles are considered offensive weapons, as opposed to defensive. They can be operated like gun-trucks similar to the ones seen employed by the US during the Vietnam War. Level III Narco Tanks can be split further into two categories – SUVs and large commercial vehicles.
Level IV is a predicted evolution of Level III – an Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicle with an anti-vehicular main gun (probably some form of AA gun) and possibly thicker armor. For various reasons that will be explored later in this article, this evolution has not happened.
What makes larger Level III vehicles particularly dangerous and well-known is their sheer size, intimidating appearance, high passenger capacity (often as many as 20 men), and the fact that they may carry heavy machine guns or even RPGs. Analysis of photographs reveals that some weapons seen include personal weapons, mounted .50 cal snipers, mounted machine guns, and perhaps other heavy infantry or anti-tank weapons such as rocket propelled grenades. Unconventional weapons are used on these vehicles, too. Many of them have battering rams, perhaps to burst through gates, enemy vehicles, or even general traffic. Whereas some vehicles even reportedly have gadgets that chuck nails or oil onto the road, presumably to help lose a tailing vehicle.
Smaller Narco Tanks are generally based on SUVs and pickup trucks. They are easy to conceal and are known to feature very powerful V10 engines, making them perfect for the type of combat they are involved in. These also often feature turrets, a curious innovation perhaps, but they allow effective fire to be laid down on enemies. For example, one vehicle had a turret designed for a sniper to cover a 160-degree radius towards the front. They can provide crucial forwards fire that most comparable gun trucks lack.
SUV Narco Tanks tend to be light, but there are examples of extensively modified and heavily armed types. Both of these types were made at roughly the same time, but only the lighter SUV Narco Tanks are seen today – the heavy ones tend to be very conspicuous, such as the infamous examples of Monstruo 2010 and 2011 (see below). Such designs are also rather short-lived designs owing to their inherent flaws such as being far too conspicuous, unreliable, and slow.
monster 11
A ‘light’ Narco Tank – a large pick-up truck (possibly a 1999 Chevrolet Silverado 2500) featuring an armored pillbox on the rear. It has space for four passengers, and its armor 19mm thick. It is less likely to attract attention from authorities.  Being barely modified, it could probably hit speeds of 110km/h (68mph). Seized June, 2011, Tamaulipas.

Lighter SUV Narco Tanks tend to have internal armor kits, or just small pillboxes mounted on the rear. As mentioned earlier, internal armor kits are becoming commercially available, which, whilst providing similar armor characteristics as external improvised armor, are also nearly impossible for authorities to detect from the outside of the vehicle. Vehicles modified with these kits are also not blatantly cartel-related, save for all of the firearms inside, meaning they cannot be seized without serious proof of criminal intent. They are also substantially lighter than those equipped with heavier external armor, which means that these Light Narco Tanks can travel much quicker. These two advantages alone have meant that the chances of seeing the larger, more spectacular Narco Tanks in the future is slim.

In Combat and Tactics

The smaller vehicles based on SUVs tend to be stealthy and defensive weapons, usually to defend territory or protect drugs shipments. They may still carry heavier weapons such as .50 cal sniper rifles, but rarely anything larger. There are reports of videos that show them to be operated in convoys of 10-20 vehicles, each carrying up to five men. Again, to make the point very clear – this type is more and more common, seeing as though they have many benefits over the larger vehicles, as they are more difficult to detect, can travel faster, and attract less unwanted attention.
Chevy-Suburban-Browning-M2-Machine-Gun
A Chevy Suburban with a mounted Browning M2 machine gun. Found in Nuevo Laredo, circa 2010. This type of Narco Tank is becoming more common, because it is more stealthy, although the machine gun is very obvious, and it seems as though it would be near impossible to aim. It would also be very dangerous to operate in such an enclosed space without military-grade ear defenders.
Larger gun trucks are seen in fewer numbers, perhaps alone or in small groups. These vehicles seem to be used exclusively as an offensive weapon against rival cartels. However, they feature a major weak point – tires, which are rarely bulletproof and are seldom protected by armor plating.
Narco Tanks are far from indestructible and have not overwhelmed opposing cartels or the Mexican military. They are not often engaged by the military, but the military has been known to employ handheld AT weaponry against them, such as the RL-83 Blindicide bazooka, which was used during one engagement in May 2011, at Escobobo, Nuevo Leon. Some photos exist of abandoned Narco Tanks having been severely damaged by RPGs fired from opposing cartels, and some knocked out vehicles have even been graffitied, daring Los Zetas to send more Narco Tanks to their doom.
Narco Tank destroyed by RPG
An abandoned Narco Tank based on a truck which appears to have been destroyed by an RPG hit and a subsequent fire. RPGs are common in cartel arsenals, and seemingly with good reason.
They have also not been used against civilians as an offensive weapon. Los Zetas seems to act in a military-fashion, by wearing military uniforms and setting up roadblocks with their Narco Tanks, which sometimes look similar to military vehicles, save for a few details. Despite seeming as though they want to have political and social control over areas, Los Zetas and other cartels are not wholly hierarchical in their structure. In fact, they operate as federations, thus meaning that they can become fragmented very easily (it was fragmentation of one cartel that led to Los Zetas’ formation), thus meaning that they cannot form any kind of governing body. Furthermore, Narco Tanks may become redundant, as the necessary coordination of these military-like vehicles (mainly avoiding capture by authorities) may not be present in a fragmented group.

Infamous: Monstruo 2010 and 2011

Two of the most famous Narco Tanks are known as Monstruo 2010 and Monstruo 2011. It is unclear whether or not they were made by the same workshop, but they both share very similar features, although it may be the case that they are unrelated vehicles, save for the name. These are the vehicles which truly do look like they were straight from the Max Max franchise, owing to their entirely armored exterior and unique appearance.

“Monstruos del Narcos” (infographic in Spanish on Monstruo 2010)
Monstruo 2010 is the more crude looking version, based on a large SUV. According to the above infographic, it could transport up to 19 or 20 men carrying assault rifles. It features a single turret at the front of the crew compartment for a sniper. All glass was removed from the vehicle and replaced with armor plating; although small vision slits featuring armored glass (polycarbonate and Duplex) were added. The tires, too, were partially covered with a steel plate, but nevertheless, an ultralightweight, bulletproof, ballistic steel ring was added to each. The steel hull was an inch (25.4mm) thick and angled upwards. The front of the vehicle featured a large steel pole 4×4 inches big, to smash through obstacles, and, strangely, the grill was reportedly electrified with up to 700 volts! It also had nail-dropping, oil-slicking, and smoke screen devices which could throw off pursuers, which would be necessary, as it could only travel a mere 40-50km/h (25-31mph).
It also featured a satellite communication system for listening to police / military communications – perhaps one of the most inventive and ingenious devices ever attached to a Narco Tank. It would mean that the vehicle would not have to rely on lookouts using mobile phones to inform the Narco Tanks on police / military movements. Crucially, the lookouts could only do this once the authorities were in the process of carrying out a raid, whereas tapping into communication systems would inform the Narco Tank of potential threats before they have even begun moving. Nevertheless, Monstruo 2010 was captured by authorities in Jalisco, May 2011.
Monstruo 2011 looked much more sophisticated than Monstruo 2010. The key differences are that it featured two turrets and looked fairly well put together, even featuring reinforced transmission. It is believed that two Monstruo 2011 vehicles have been found, which look almost identical. The first was found in Rancho San Juan, Municipality of Progreso, Coahuila, buried under tonnes of dirt, perhaps to evade detection. The other was found in Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, with its tires missing.
monster 18
A Monstruo 2011 found in Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas. It is almost identical to the other Monstruo 2011, despite being found in a totally different part of the country. The only obvious differences are the turrets are very slightly different at the top, and the co-driver’s side window is longer. No photos of this one at Ciudad Mier exist of it with its suspension intact.

The vehicle is based on a Ford Super Duty pickup truck. On average, its armor is one inch (25.4mm) thick. The driver’s seating area remains totally unchanged inside, save for level V bulletproof glass. The nose of the vehicle was sharply pointed with a steel battering ram, showing a clear intention to smash through obstacles, although it could only travel at speeds of only 40-50km/h (25-31mph). It can transport an estimated 20 people, and it even features semi-enclosed steel firing compartments – six on both sides of the hull, two at the rear, and two sniper’s turrets. It does not seem to feature any gadgets like Monstruo 2010, but it was, undoubtedly, a sophisticated and well-planned design, probably created using blueprints, which would explain the existence of two Monstruo 2011s.

Monstruo 2011 specification

Dimensions (L-w-h) 7m x 3m x 3.5m (23ft x 9.8ft x 11.5ft)
Base vehicle Ford Super Duty pick-up, estimated mid-2000s model
Crew 2 (driver, co-driver) + up to 20 passengers
Propulsion Triton V10, five-speed, ten cylinder, petrol
Speed (road) 40-50km/h (25-31mph)
Armament 1x Large steel battering ram.
2x Sniper’s turrets
14x Pistol ports for personal weapons, usually assault rifles and .50cal sniper rifles.
Armor Up to 25.4mm
Total production 2 almost identical models
Fate Both seized by authorities. First in May, 2011. Second in June, 2011. Probably dismantled or scrapped.

Further development

As mentioned earlier, Narco Tanks like the Monstruos and heavy trucks have been seldom seen since 2012, perhaps owing to the fact that stealthy SUVs with internal armor are preferred by the cartels, and with good reason. The Mexican government states that at least 100 Narco Tanks have been seized so far, which has undoubtedly had a knock-on effect on Narco Tank production. Instead of getting bigger, as many commentators have speculated, they have actually gotten smaller and less conspicuous.
The most recent reported sighting of Narco Tanks was in February 2015, when a Narco Tanks factory hidden inside a winery was discovered by Mexican authorities near Nuevo Laredo, close to the US border. 13 vehicles were seized, but only 8 of them were Narco Tanks – the other five were in the process of being armored. Along with the haul of vehicles was a number of .50 cal bullets, bullet-proof glass panels, and AK-47 magazines. This is only the second widely reported raid on a Narco Tank factory, and it is almost certain that plenty more illegal workshops are still in operation and are producing Narco Tanks to this very day.
Sources and further reading:
Small Wars Journal (English and Spanish)
Cartels.forumotion.com
Insightcrime.org
Borderlandbeat.com
Polizeros.com
M3report.com (Warning: Very graphic content)
Carsguide.com
Latino.foxnews.com
CNN.com
Businessinsider.com
Univision.com (Spanish)
Los Zetas on Wikipedia
Cártel del Golfo on Wikipedia

narco tank 1
The most famous, and perhaps one of the most heavily armed Narco Tanks, “Monstruo 2010“. It is believed to be one of the first Narco Tanks ever discovered by authorities. It features a satellite communication device to track police and military communications. It also has smoke-screen, oil-slicking, and nail-dropping devices. It has a heavy steel battering ram on the front, which is also electrified with up to 700 volts! Seized in Jalisco, May 2011. Not to scale.

monster 18
Another famous Narco Tank –  “Monstruo 2011“. Two almost identical models of it were built. It features space for 20 men, with individual steel firing stations for each porthole. Its two snipers turrets give all-around cover, and there is a heavy steel battering ram on the front. It is based on a Ford Super Duty. Seized in Ciudad Meir, May 2011. Not to scale.

monster 14
Possibly the largest Narco Tank discovered yet. It belonged to Cártel Del Golfo. The cabin and vehicle platform are all one piece, meaning that the suspension is less likely to snap in the middle. There are no doors for a driver and co-driver, but there is a rear hatch for entry. There are twelve portholes with space for 13 crew members. Seized January 2012, Carmago, Tamaulipas. Not to scale.

sniper in truck riveted to floor
A .50cal sniper riveted to the rear of a modern Narco Tank based on an enclosed people carrier. This type of Narco Tank is becoming more common because it is more stealthy and its interior armor is a lot less conspicuous.
monster 8
“Popemobile Narco”, so called due to its resemblance to the “Popemobile“. This is a simpler conversion seemingly based on a GMC Sierra 2500 featuring a sniper’s cabin on the rear with space for four people.
popemobile narco
Despite the crude construction, the materials used in its construction are high-quality steel and bulletproof glass.
narco tank 1
One of the more exotic looking Narcos Tanks featuring a turret. It is named “Monstruo 2010”, it is perhaps an early version of  “Monstruo 2011”, although they are more than likely unrelated designs. Seized in Jalisco, May 2011.
Screen shot 2011-06-19 at 7.01.11 AM
The interior of one of Monstruo 2011’s turrets. It seems as though the viewports featured shutters.
monster 10
A ‘light’ Narco Tank, but still one of the larger pickup trucks (seemingly a 1999 Ford F-150 FX4 double-cab) featuring an armored pillbox on the rear. It has space for eight passengers and gives frontal coverage. The hood of the vehicle is reinforced with hand-cut steel plates, probably 19mm in thickness. Seized June 2011, Tamaulipas.
monster 5
One of the larger pickup trucks featuring an armored pillbox on the rear. It has space for eight passengers and gives frontal coverage. Seized June 2011, Tamaulipas.
Confiscated in
A large commercial moving van has been converted into a Narco Tank. It has an armored rear featuring many portholes, as well as a set of external cage armor for the cab. It could carry as many as eight men. Seized June 2011, Tamaulipas
monster 16
A large white truck with plenty of additional armor – the hood is 19mm thick. It has the rear wheels covered up, but the front ones remain exposed. There are ten portholes and eleven separate firing stations. Seized June 2011, Tamaulipas.
narco truck
One of the larger Narco Tanks, it might be based on a dump truck, and it supposedly belonged to Cártel Del Golfo. Mexican Marines are guarding the vehicle. 25mm shells, a 40mm grenade, and some AP .50cal rounds were also reportedly found inside!

inside of a narco truck
The interior of the above (or possibly below, sources differ) Narco Tank. It features air conditioning, and possibly fire-proof insulation.
monster 13
A heavily armored Narco Tank nicknamed “Batmobile”, seized January 2012, Carmago, Tamaulipas. It has space for 18 passengers. It features a ram, and the hood is covered with 12.7mm inch steel. Also believed to be a Dodge truck (based on interior photos of the steering wheel) it supposedly belonged to Cártel del Golfo.

inside of a narco
Interior of the above Narco Tank (or possibly the other above truck, sources differ). All the electronics have been rewired into the newly armored driver’s position.
narco tank 3
Another view of the heavily armored truck featuring a ram, seized January 2012, Carmago, Tamaulipas.
Narco interior
Interior of the above Narco Tank. Despite its crude-looks, this is one of the more ‘polished’ interiors, featuring benches for crews to sit on and large firing ports.
monster 17
A similar heavily armored truck featuring a ram, seized January 2012, Carmago, Tamaulipas. The front ram has been reinforced with steel plates.

A video of one of the Monstruo 2011s having been seized (Spanish).

A video of Monstruo 2010 having been seized.