United States of America (1944-1945)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
5 (commander, driver, co-driver, gunner, loader)
Twin General Motors 6046, 375hp
48 km/h (30 mph) on road
Vertical Volute Spring (VVSS)
M3 L/40 75 mm (2.95 in)
2 x (7.62 mm) machine-guns
Maximum 76 mm (3 in)
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
United Kingdom/United States of America (1942)
Infantry Support Tanks
At the time of its conception, the Canal Defence Light, or CDL, was a Top Secret project. This ‘Secret Weapon’ was based around the use of a powerful Carbon-Arc lamp and would be used to illuminate enemy positions in night attacks as well as disorient the enemy troops.
A number of vehicles were converted to CDLs, such as the Matilda II, the Churchill, and the M3 Lee. In keeping with the highly secret nature of the project, Americans designated vehicles carrying the CDL as “T10 Shop Tractors.” In fact, the designation “Canal Defence Light” was intended as a code name to draw as little attention to the project as possible.
Looking at the CDL tanks, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were one of the famous ‘Hobart’s Funnies.’ but in fact, the man credited with the creation of the Canal Defence Light was Albert Victor Marcel Mitzakis. Mitzakis designed the contraption with Oscar De Thoren, a naval commander who, like Mitzakis, had served in the First World War. De Thoren had long championed the idea of armored searchlights for use in night attacks and the project continued under the supervision of the venerable British Major General, J. F. C. “Boney” Fuller. Fuller was a noted Military historian and strategist, credited as one the earliest theorists of modern armored warfare. With Major General Fuller’s backing, and even the financial support of the Second Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor, the first CDL prototype was demonstrated to the French Military in 1934. The French were not keen, thinking the system was too fragile.
The British War Office had refused to test the device until January 1937 when Fuller contacted Cyril Deverell, the newly appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff (C.I.G.S.). Three systems were demonstrated on Salisbury Plain in January and February 1937. Following the demonstration which took place on Salisbury Plain, three more of the devices were ordered for tests. There were delays, however, and the War Office took over the project in 1940. Tests finally began and orders were placed for 300 devices that could be mounted to tanks. A prototype was soon constructed using a spare Matilda II hull. A number of Churchills and even Valentines were also supplied for the tests.
The turrets were manufactured at the Vulcan Foundry Locomotive Works in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire. Components were also produced at the Southern Railway workshops in Ashford, Kent. The Ministry of Supply delivered the Matilda hulls. The turrets were identified by Type, eg. Type A, B & C. The Ministry of Supply also established an assembly and training site known as the CDL School at Lowther Castle, near Penrith, Cumbria.
The CDL was demonstrated to United States officials in 1942. Generals Eisenhower and Clark were present for the demonstrations. The American’s became intrigued by the CDL, and decided to develop their own version of the device. Designers chose the then outdated and plentiful M3 Lee Medium tank as a mount for the light.
For the purposes of extreme secrecy, production stages were split between three locations. The Arc-Lamps being provided by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the American Locomotive Company, New York, worked on modifying the M3 Lee to accept the CDL turret and the Pressed Steel Car Company, New Jersey, constructed the turret as “Coastal Defence Turrets.” Finally, the components were united at the Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. 497 Canal Defence Light equipped tanks had been produced by 1944.
Crews were trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and in the huge Arizona/California maneuver area. Crews training with the vehicles – codename “Leaflet” – went under the codename “Cassock.” Six Battalions were formed and would later join British CDL tank regiments, covertly stationed in Wales.
American crews came to call the CDL Tanks “Gizmos”. Tests would later begin to mount the CDL on the newer M4 Sherman chassis, developing their own unique turret for it, which will be explored in a subsequent section.
Let There Be Light
The Carbon-Arc searchlight would produce a light as bright as 13 Million candle-power (12.8 million candela). Arc-Lamps produce light via an arc of electricity suspended in air between two carbon electrodes. To ignite the lamp, the rods are touched together, forming an arc, and then slowly drawn apart, maintaining an arc. The carbon in the rods vaporizes, and the vapor produced is extremely luminous, which produces the bright light. This light is then focussed by a large concave mirror.
Using a series of mirrors to reflect it, the intensely bright beam of light passes through a very small vertical slit on the left of the turret face. The slit was 24 inches (61cm) tall, and 2 inches (5.1cm) wide and had a built in shutter that would open and close two times per second, giving the light a flickering effect. The theory was that this would dazzle enemy troops, but also had the added bonus of protecting the lamp from small-arms fire. Another tool to dazzle troops was the ability to attach an amber or blue filter to the lamp. Coupled with the flashing, this would increase the dazzling effect and could still illuminate targets areas effectively. The system also allows for the use of an infra-red illumination bulb so that IR vision systems can see at night. The field covered by the beam was a 34 x 340 yards (31 x 311 m) area at a range of 1000 yards (910 m). The lamp could also elevate and depress 10 degrees.
“…a source of light placed at the focus of a parabolic-elliptical mirror reflector [made from aluminium] is thrown by this reflector near the back of the turret which directs the directs the beam forwardly again to focus at or about an aperture in the wall of the turret through which the light beam is to be projected…”
An excerpt from Mitzakis’ patent application.
The device was housed in a special one-man cylindrical turret that was squared off on the left, and rounded on the right. The turret could not rotate 360 degrees as the cabling would snag so could only rotate 180 degrees left or 180 degrees right but not all the way around. The turret featured 65 mm of armor (2.5 in). The operator inside, listed in the vehicle design as “observer”, was positioned on the left side of the turret, partitioned off from the lamp system. The commander was issued with a pair of Asbestos gloves which were used when the carbon electrodes that power the light burned out and needed changing. He also had the role of operation the tank’s only weapon, a BESA 7.92 mm (0.31 in) machine gun, which was positioned on the left of the beam slit in a ball mount. The device was also designed to be employed on small naval vessels.
The faithful “Queen of the Desert,” the Matilda II, was now a largely considered outdated and outclassed in the European theatre, and as such there was a surplus of these vehicles. The Matilda II was the first tank to be equipped with the CDL Arc-Lamp turret, identified as the Type B turret. The Matildas were as reliable as ever with reasonable armor, however they were still extremely slow, especially compared to the more modern tanks entering service. As such, the Matilda hull gave way to that of the M3 Grant, which could at least keep up with the majority of Allied vehicles as well as sharing a lot of component parts with other Allied vehicles, making supply easier.
Another variant of the Matilda came out of this project, the Matilda Crane. This involved a Matilda using a specially designed crane attachment, that could lift off the CDL or standard turret as required. This allowed an easy conversion, meaning that the subject Matilda could be used as a gun tank, or a CDL tank.
The Churchill is the rarest of the CDLs, with no pictorial records whatsoever, barring a cartoon from a newspaper. The 35th Tank Brigade, as well as being issued with Matildas, were also issued with Churchills, forming the 152nd Royal Armored Corps. It is unclear whether these Churchills were ever equipped with the CDL. The turret ring for the Churchill was only 52″ (1321mm) compared to 54″ (1373mm) on the Matilda and the later M3 Grant. The turrets, therefore, were not interchangeable from Matilda or M3 CDLs. Armor on the turret was also increased to 85mm.
There is a written record for the existence of the Churchill CDL in the form of a report by a member of the 86th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, stating that he witnessed Churchills equipped with CDLs deployed on the 9th February 1945 near Kranenburg, Germany.
An excerpt from his report: “A Churchill tank carrying a searchlight took up position at the rear of our position and at night floodlit the area, pointing its beam over the town. They turned night into day and our gunners working on the guns were silhouetted against the night sky.”
In the long run, the M3 Grant was always the intended mount for the Canal Defence Light. It was quicker, able to keep up with its compatriots, and retained its 75mm tank gun allowing it to defend itself much more effectively. Like the Matilda, the M3 Grant was largely considered obsolete, so there was quite a surplus of the tanks.
The CDL replaced the secondary armament turret atop the M3. The M3s, originally, were also fitted with the Type B turret of the Matilda. Later, the turret was changed to the Type D. This welded up some of the ports and openings, but also saw the addition of a dummy gun next to the beam slit to give it the appearance of a normal gun tank. The Americans also tested the M3, known as the Lee in their service, as a CDL tank. The tanks used were mostly of the M3A1 type with the cast super-structure. The turret was mostly identical to the British pattern, the major differences being a ball mount for a Browning M1919 .30 Cal. as opposed to the British BESA.
After the M3 CDL, the M4A1 Sherman was the next logical choice for a variant. The turret used for the M4 was much different than the British original, designated the Type E. It consisted of a large round cylinder, that featured two shuttered slits in the front, for two Arc-Lamps. The lamps were powered by a 20-kilowatt generator, driven by a power takeoff from the tank’s engine. The commander/operator sat in the middle of the lamps, in a central sectioned off compartment. In the middle of the two beam slits, there was a ball mount for a Browning M1919 .30 Cal. machine gun. There was a hatch in the middle of the turret roof for the commander. A few were also trialed using the M4A4 (Sherman V) hull. The use of the M4 did not get past prototype stages, however.
The Prototype M4 CDL
Matilda CDL of the 49th RTR – 35th Tank Brigade, north-eastern France, September 1944. Churchill CDL, western Rhine bank, December 1944.
M3 Lee/Grant CDL, other wise known as a “Gizmo”. Medium Tank M4A1 CDL prototype. All illustrations are by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet
As it would happen, the Canal Defence Lights saw extremely limited action and did not operate in their intended roles. Due to the secret nature of the CDL project, very few armored commanders were actually aware of its existence. As such, they were often forgotten and not drawn into strategic plans. The operational plan for the CDLs was that the tanks would line up 100 yards apart, crossing their beams at 300 yards (274.3 meters). This would create triangles of darkness for attacking troops to move forward in while illuminating and blinding enemy positions.
The first CDL equipped unit was the 11th Royal Tank Regiment, formed early in 1941. The regiment was based at Brougham Hall, Cumberland. They trained at Lowther Castle near Penrith at the specially established ‘CDL School’, set up by the Ministry of Supply. The Regiment was supplied with both Matilda and Churchill hulls, with a total of 300 vehicles. British CDL equipped units stationed in the United Kingdom could later be found as part of the British 79th Armored Division and 35th Tank Brigade, they were joined by the American 9th Armored Group. This group trained in their M3 CDLs at Camp Bouse, Arizona, before being stationed in the United Kingdom. They were then stationed in Wales, in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire where they would also train.
A Grant CDL testing its beam at Lowther Castle
In June 1942, the battalion left the UK, bound for Egypt. Equipped with 58 CDLs, they came under the command of the 1st Tank Brigade. The 11th RTR set up their own ‘CDL School’ here, where they trained the 42nd Battalion from December 1942 to January 1943. In 1943, Major E.R. Hunt of the 49th RTR was detailed in late 1943 to lay on a special demonstration for the Prime Minister and op Generals. Major Hunt recalled the following experience:
“I was detailed to lay on a special demonstration with 6 CDL tanks for him (Churchill). A stand was erected on a bleak hillside in the training area at Penrith and in due course, the great man arrived accompanied by others. I controlled the various maneuvers of the tanks by wireless from the stands, ending the demo with the CDLs advancing towards the spectators with their lights on halting just 50 yards in front of them. The lights were switched off and I awaited further instructions. After a brief interval, the Brigadier (Lipscomb of the 35th Tank Brigade) rushed up to me and ordered me to switch on the lights as Mr. Churchill was just leaving. I immediately ordered the 6 CDL tanks to switch on: 6 beams each of 13 million candlepower came on to illuminate the great man quietly relieving himself against a bush! I immediately had the lights extinguished!”
Back in the UK at Lowther, two more tank battalions had converted to CDL units. These were the 49th Battalion, RTR, and 155th Battalion, Royal Armoured Corps, and were equipped with Matilda CDLs. The third battalion to arrive was the 152nd Regiment, RAC, who were equipped with Churchill CDLs. The 79th Armored Division was the first Canal Defence Light force to see deployment in Europe in August 1944, the other units were retained in the UK. Rather than let the remaining crews sit idle, they were assigned to other roles, such as mine clearance or assigned to regular tank units.
In November 1944, Canal Defense Lights of the 357th Searchlight Battery, Royal Artillery provided light for the mine-clearing flail tanks clearing a path for Allied armor and infantry during in Operation Clipper. This was one of the CDLs first uses in the field.
An M3 CDl on the Bank of the Rhine, 1945. The device is concealed under a tarp. Photo: Panzerserra Bunker
The Canal Defence Lights only real action, however, was at the hands of United States forces during the Battle of Remagen, specifically at the Ludendorff Bridge where they assisted in its defense after the Allies captured it. The CDLs were 13 M3 “Gizmos,”, from the 738th Tank Battalion. The tanks were perfect for the task, as they were sufficiently armored to stand up to the defensive fire coming for the German controlled East Bank of the Rhine. Standard searchlights would have been destroyed in seconds but the CDLs were successfully used to illuminate every angle to deter surprise attacks. This included being shone into the Rhine itself (fitting the vehicle’s name), which helped reveal German frogmen trying to sabotage the bridge. After the action, without the need to defend against incoming fire, captured German spotlights took over the role.
After the action, a captured German officer reported in questioning: “We wondered what those lights were as we got the hell shot out of us as we tried to destroy the bridge…”
British M3 Grant CDLs were used as their forces crossed the Rhine at Rees. The CDLs drew heavy fire with one of the tanks being knocked out. More were used to cover British and US forces as they crossed the Elbe River Laurenburg and Bleckede.
Some Canal Defence Lights were ordered for the Pacific Campaign in 1945 by the US 10th Army for the attack on Okinawa, but the invasion was over by the time the vehicles arrived. Some British M3 CDLs did make it to India under the 43rd RTR and were stationed here for the planned invasion of Malaya in February 1946, the war with Japan came to an end before this of course. The CDLs did see a form of action however, by assisting the Calcutta Police in the riots of 1946 with great success.
To no surprise, CDL survivors are rare today. There are only two on public display in the world. A Matilda CDL can be found in The Tank Museum, Bovington, England and an M3 Grant CDL can be found at the Cavalry Tank Museum, Ahmednagar in India.
The Matilda CDL as it sits today in The Tank Museum, Bovington, England. Photo: Author’s Photo
The surviving M3 Grant CDL at the Cavalary Tank Museum, Ahmednagar, India.
An article by Mark Nash with research assistance from Andrew Hills
United States of America (Circa 1933)
Tractor Tank – Estimated 6 Built
Tanks on a Budget
The Disston Tractor Tank (sometimes known as the Disston 6-ton Tractor Tank) was essentially a Caterpillar tractor that was given a simplistic armored superstructure, a turret, and a modest armament of a .30 cal (7.62 mm) machine gun and 37 mm (1.46 in) cannon. It was a Great Depression-era business venture – The idea being to sell cheap tanks to the military, knowing full well that value for money would be a key selling point during the period. However, they were, for the most part, deemed unsatisfactory, and eventually ended up being marketed to developing nations such as Kuwait, Romania, and Afghanistan for army / policing use.
The vehicle is very obscure and a lot of its history remains a mystery. Only Afghanistan is a confirmed user of the Disston Tractor Tank, with an estimated five surviving in scrapyards to this day. There are also claims of attempts to sell the vehicle to China, Canada, New Zealand, and even the USMC, which will be evaluated in this article.
Four Disston Tractor Tanks in Afghanistan, circa late 30s. One source has suggested that these tanks may have just arrived in Kabul, hence their armaments being removed. However, the original caption does not suggest this to be the case. A driver can just about be made out inside the vehicle on the left side – the driver’s armored port has been lowered down (see other photos for a comparison). Also, there appears to be a tiny hatch just next to the engine deck, with an unknown purpose – possibly maintenance. As taken from an unknown German book on Afghanistan from 1940.
The Disston Tractor Tank was a risky business venture with the aim of selling cheap but effective weapons to the military during the Great Depression. According to “Mobilize!: Why Canada Was Unprepared for the Second World War” by Larry D. Rose, they only cost $21,000 ($366,750 in today’s money), which might sound like a lot, but it was roughly half the price of a contemporary British light tank, and with their 37 mm armaments, they were hardly under-armed vehicles for a mere tractor tank.
The exact creator and designer of the vehicle is the subject of debate – sources will either cite the Disston Company or the Caterpillar Tractor Company. There is strong evidence for both. For example, the Disston Company had helped Frank Sutton with his very similar design, the Sutton Skunk , and what’s more, they seemed to have done all the assembly of the vehicles.
However, it seems more likely that the idea came from Caterpillar – according to “A Place to Live and Work: The Henry Disston Saw Works and the Tacony” by Harry C. Silcox. At some point in the “mid-1930s“, William D. Disston was asked by Caterpillar Tractor Company of Peoria to create tank armor sets for tractors – which implies that Caterpillar at least came up with the concept, if not the exact design. Disston received Caterpillar Model 35 (not, as some sources suggest, Model 30) tractors and assembled them into tanks. Assuming that this is true, the name “Disston” was likely used for the tractor tanks because either the Disston name had significant brand power (which it indeed did), or because Disston came up with the exact design. At some point, Otto Kafka Incorporated was involved in this deal, most likely purely for marketing, but it is unclear how they came to be involved.
One of the big unknowns of the Disston tractor tank project is when the idea was conceived. Evidence suggests that the idea came about in 1933, as there was an attempt to sell some to Kuwait in January 1934. Included in a pair of letters to Kuwait from Otto Kafka Incorporated is a leaflet advertising the Disston Tractor Tank, which includes a photo of a Disston tractor tank prototype. Logically, it follows that the agreement between Caterpillar and Disston took place in 1933 (or perhaps, but not likely, January 1934), with one prototype made at that point.
The Disston Tractor Tank was, essentially, a boxy, armored body placed onto a Caterpillar Model 35 tractor. The armor appears to have been totally riveted together, with an entry door at the rear. The turret seems to have an access hatch. An engine access hatch also appears to be placed on either side of the engine deck. There were three types of Disston Tractor Tanks – 1. Prototype. According to esotericarmor.blogspot, this vehicle is a simplified ‘late type’, but this does not appear to be the case. This type has only been seen on advertising leaflets with a 37 mm gun mounted with a gunshield instead of a turret. Its hull shape is simpler than other types. It features a short track assembly / suspension which is the original Caterpillar Model 35 design. It also has a large grill at the front of the vehicle for air intake. It is believed to be the prototype as a 1935 advertising leaflet suggests “scrap metal was used to armor the original model“, with a picture of this type below. According to the leaflet, it only took two hours to assemble the prototype – not to convert the tanks back into tractors, as some sources have suggested. 2. Main type – Longer track assemblies. This is the most common type, of which four are known to have been made, albeit with slightly varying hull dimensions. The longer track assembly appears to have been modestly made – a third roadwheel has been added in front of the larger, original front wheel. It is held in place by a large metal bar, riveted to the rest of the assembly. The rest of the track assembly appears unchanged. There are plenty of maintenance hatches on the vehicle – one either side of the engine deck, and perhaps another two in front of the driver’s and secondary gunner’s positions. There seems to be some small, near unnoticeable differences between individual hulls, such as the height of the engine deck (see photos). These vehicles were likely upgraded with engine ventilation grills at some point after the late 30s. 3. Short track assembly – in Afghanistan, a standard body type has been seen mounted on an unaltered tractor chassis. The reason why this type was made is unclear. It is most likely that this is simply how the vehicle was built and delivered from Disston. However, it could possibly be the prototype upgraded with a new body type. It could also possibly be a local conversion of the same Caterpillar tractor – according to one source, Afghanistan ordered extra armor shells without tractors (although whether this is true or not is still in debate), so it is possible that it was an Afghan conversion, but this is unlikely. Strangely, the hull of the vehicle also does not appear to be as long as the others.
Every Disston Tractor Tank featured two guns – a 37 mm M1916 gun in the turret (although the vast majority of photos show no gun barrel), and a .30cal machine gun in the hull (probably a Marlin, as these were commercially available), with perhaps five other gun ports (two on either side of the hull, and one on the rear, although it is unclear which are viewports, and which are gun ports). Armor thickness is unknown. One source suggests 6-13 mm (0.24-0.51 in), but another source suggests 6-8 mm (0.24-0.31 in). In any case, the armor would certainly stop small arms fire and light shrapnel.
Its speed is estimated to be roughly 5-6.5 mph (8-10.5 km/h) with a 47.5 hp, 4 cylinder, diesel engine. In the lower front plate covering the engine, a small hole is visible, which is for inserting a rod to start the engine. It is unclear where the exhaust pipe had been moved to.
The crew consisted of three – a driver, commander/main gunner, and a secondary gunner. However, according to advertisements, the tank also had troop transport capabilities, with a maximum of seven men.
Once it was realized that western buyers such as the US military were, for the most part, not interested, the tanks were instead marketed to developing nations such as Kuwait and Afghanistan. This process began as early as 1934, with the first known attempt in January 1934, to Kuwait. The design was well-marketed, with letters addressed to foreign leaders with informative pamphlets enclosed. The only nations it was known to be marketed to are Kuwait, Afghanistan, Romania, and possibly Canada. It is highly likely that attempts to sell to other nations happened between 1934 and 1935 via Otto Kafka Incorporated, but these documents may remain hidden in national archives.
Kuwait seems to have been the first known to receive a sales pitch involving the Disston Tractor Tank. At some point, Otto Kafka Incorporated was involved in the Disston Tractor Tank deal with Caterpillar and Disston, possibly a result of companies collaborating in order to survive the Great Depression, or perhaps a desperate attempt to make money on the near-failed tractor tank project.
Two letters dated January 23rd, 1934 were sent to Sheikh Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, the ruler of Kuwait (although addressed to the Minister of War, Kuwait had no equivalent, so they were delivered to the Sheikh) from Otto Kafka, who was the president of Otto Kafka Incorporated (New York). The first outlined the military application of “Disston Impenetra Steel”, and the second discussed the Disston Tractor Tank. The second letter states:
“What the auxiliary cruiser is to a Navy, the Disston Tractor Tank is to an Army or Police Force. Both are useful and useable in peace and war. They both pay their way. The Disston Tractor Tank is the latest in army and police equipment. It is, in fact, a combination war and peace machine, and it has created a sensation in military and police circles. Your excellence, we trust, will appreciate its many advantages of which a few are summarized as follows: 1. The price of the Disston Tractor Tank is less than one half of the usual war tank. 2. Being smaller it is more ambulant and, therefore, it can be used to advantage in city streets and in difficult war terrain. 3. It is equipped to be a highly efficient combat and troop transport machine. It is an efficient offensive weapon for use against the enemy across the border, or for use to quell riots, to dispel mobs in case of civil disturbances. 4. The armature with its equipment of a 37mm. gun in the back, a machine gun in the front, and toxic gas equipment can be attached with a few moments’ work at any well-equipped garage, converting the war tank into a serviceable tractor for agricultural purposes, for general hauling and for the many other uses of the ordinary tractor. 5. The Disston Tractor-Tank accommodates a crew of three in combat, or seven when used for transportation of troops. Will it please Your Excellency to consider Disston Tractor Tanks as your standard military, navy and police equipment. We will be glad to supply more detailed information upon request.”
No orders were placed, but it caught the attention of Harold Dickinson, a British political agent in Kuwait. In a letter dated 15th February 1934, addressed to Lieutenant Colonel T.C. Fowle, Dickinson suggests that Fowle intended to report the attempted sale to the British government. He also remarks that the attempted sale was “not a very edifying procedure when their Government (the U.S.A) is supposed to be taking the leading part in the world today to try and stop war etc“.
Unfortunately, no further details are available on this incident.
According to “The Romanian Army and the Evolution of the Tank branch. Documents. 1919-1945” by Commander Doctor Marian Moşneagu, Doctor Iulian-Stelian Boţoghină, Professor Mariana-Daniela Manolescu, Doctor Leontin-Vasile Stoica, and Professor Mihai-Cosmin Şoitariu, there was an attempt by Otto Kafka to sell Disstons to Romania. In the mid-1930s, Romania was attempting to acquire foreign tanks in order to develop their armored corps.
By 24th July, 1935, B.D. Zissu informed Romanian army leaders that Kafka was “in a position to supply to Romania the latest type of tanks at advantageous prices and payment conditions“. Zissu recalled that it would be possible to quickly replace damaged parts (as Caterpillar had branches across the world) and that the vehicle would be compact, cheap, have solid construction, could use a variety of fuels (apparently including alcohol), and, it had the possibility to be reconverted into an agricultural tractor.
The Ministry of Defense sent an invitation on 20th August 1935, for the Disston to take part in a tank competition in September. Kafka refused, stating that the Romanians had to buy the vehicles first – perhaps suggesting something about the manufacturer’s opinion of the vehicle. Romanian officials refused this condition.
On 12th November, B.D. Zissu represented a new offer to Romanian officials, whereby they would travel to the USA to view the vehicles, all travel expenses paid, on the condition that twenty-five vehicles would be bought. Again, this proposal was refused, mainly due to the high transport costs and unlikeliness of obtaining spare parts during wartime conditions.
Afghanistan is the only confirmed operator of the Disston, but their order has also been the subject of the debate in terms of when it was placed, and what the exact order was.
Silcox suggests it was nine tanks and three extra armor sets, but gives no date as to when the order was placed. However, in “US Military Tracked Vehicles” by Fred W. Crimson, it is suggested that ten were ordered. In “Tanks of the World 1915-45” by Peter Chamberlain and Chris Ellis, it is suggested that three were delivered.
Despite these claims, it is the author’s belief that only five tanks (and nothing more) were sent to Afghanistan, one of which was a short track assembly type, because photographic evidence, both from the late 1930s, and modern photos of Disston wrecks show five and nothing more.
In any case, the order was reportedly shipped in 1935 to Karachi, India (now Pakistan), and sent via train to Kabul, Afghanistan. A holiday was supposedly declared, and the tanks were paraded in the city square. It is unknown how long these vehicles were in service for, although they appear to have been used at least until after WWII. It seems as though they were, at some point (believed to be after 1937), fitted with a pair of grills at the front of the engine compartment (cut into the original armor plate), probably to avoid engine overheating. Their operational colors are unclear – most modern photos show them to be sand yellow, but one in the National Museum of Afghanistan (in Kabul) was painted dark green with an Afghan roundel. Strangely, the same tank is believed to have been seen in a scrapyard in sand yellow livery.
There are no further details of their use in Afghanistan. Surviving Vehicles in Afghanistan
The earliest reported sighting of a Disston by a US soldier was perhaps as early as 2003. Since then, a common figure for the current number of Disstons remaining is two or three, but this does not appear to be the case – it seems that all five Afghan Disstons have been accounted for by modern photographs.
Reports from soldiers in Afghanistan is the best source to find out where these vehicles now lie, but reports from soldiers and photographs do not match up. Kingston Montgomery Winget (who was in Afghanistan in 2015) has said that he has seen three. Ian Parker (who was in Afghanistan in 2015) has reported only seen two (but believes that there are three in Afghanistan). Testofbattle.com forum user “cmikucki” (who was in Afghanistan circa 2006) has only reported seeing one at KMTC (but has reported seeing another near Darul Aman Garrison, and also believes there to be a third Disston somewhere else). Other soldiers, namely, Dean Larsen, who served in Kanadahar in 2007, and Steve Tyliszczak, who served primarily in Regional Command East, are helpful with their information on vehicles being scrapped in Afghanistan.
The varying figures are fairly simple to explain – not looking for Disstons specifically might seem obvious, but it must be noted that according to Dean Larsen, Soviet vehicles had been cut up by locals and parts were likely re-purposed. Worse still, a modern LAV III was abandoned overnight, and once the crew returned to recover it the following morning, all the tires were gone, and someone was even stripping down the armor plates! Similarly, Steve Tyliszczak recalls that small tank graveyards have been consolidated into larger graveyards, and the Chinese have been cutting up vehicles for scrap in several different provinces.
Based on this information, it is quite likely that local salvagers (or more likely, military clean-up and scrap operations) have meant that the vehicles have been moved, damaged further (thus making the same vehicle in different photos hard to identify), or scrapped entirely.
However, based on the reports of the aforementioned soldiers and photographs, the author has pieced together a likely set of locations for the remaining Disston Tractor Tanks: One vehicle likely located near Darul Aman Garrison, south of Kabul, last seen 2006
A Disston was reported at Darul Aman Garrison in 2006, by testofbattle.com forums user “cmikucki“. “cmikucki“, who was in Afghanistan circa 2006, claims that he has seen only two Disstons. One at Pol-e-Charkhi, and another at Darul Aman Garrison. He believes that the one he saw at Darul Aman garrison still had its suspension and gun intact, and therefore, is the famous one from the National Museum of Afghanistan. This vehicle was kept outdoors, but the museum closed in the early 1990s when rival Taliban factions fought for control of Darul Aman palace (located over the road from the museum), and it was looted many times. It is probable that the Disston at the museum has been removed by looters and was probably abandoned nearby.
“cmikucki” believes this Disston to be a third, distinct from the ones that he has seen, because the one he saw at Darul Aman had its suspension intact. However, it is the author’s belief that this Disston is the one from the National Museum of Afghanistan, as no others are known to have been given a long replica gun.
There could be a number of reasons why “cmikucki” is wrong:
It is quite possible that he is simply mistaken, and has forgotten what he has seen. “cmikucki” has not described the gun barrel of either tank that he has seen, and it is plausible that he is mistaken for what a Disston’s gun barrel looks like.
It is also possible that the vehicle has had its suspension removed at some point between him seeing it, and it being photographed, hence why he does not recognize it and believes it to be distinct from the one he saw at Darul Aman. Based on information from Steve Tyliszczak and Dean Larsen about vehicle clean-ups, salvaging, and scrapping, this seems rather likely.
Up to four vehicles located inside Kabul Military Training Center, Pol-e-Charkhi, photographed and reported between 2006 and 2011
It is the author’s belief that there are perhaps as many as four at KMTC (up to three in one area, and one in another) because of photographic evidence, but several US soldiers have given different figures, which will be explored. Three Disstons can be seen together in 2006 – apparently all long track types (although it is hard to tell with the vehicle on the far left). According to the poster on g503.com forums, this photo was taken by French soldier circa 2006 at a “sideline Blackwater Base in Kabul“. This “sideline base” is almost certainly referring to Pol-e-Charkhi, and the mountainous terrain as seen in the background points towards this being the case, too.
According to sources, this photo was most likely taken between Forward Operating Base Scorpion and the Armor Branch School on the north-west side of Gharib Ghar, close to Range One and Two, and some old, bombed-out buildings. These vehicles appear to have been moved around over time, and may now be slightly further apart than the photo shows for aforementioned reasons.
The fourth Disston at Pol-e-Charkhi is believed to be in a different tank graveyard area, and is most likely the only short-track type in existence. According to Kingston Montgomery Winget, a single Disston is likely located at the fence line east of the Armor Branch School with many old Soviet vehicles, just before the firing ranges. This particular vehicle is believed by the author to be the ‘short-track type’, of which there are several photographs showing it alone. This is also most likely the vehicle that “cmikucki” reports seeing in 2006 at KMTC.
This is evidenced further by Charles Lemons (ex-curator of the US Armor and Cavalry Museum) as he suggests that this short track vehicle was last photographed circa 2011. Lemons has also provided photos of this skeletal Disston tank, which he suggests were taken at KMTC. This ‘skeletal Disston’ appears to be the vehicle on the far right (or possibly the center) of this grouping of three, which is believed to be between Forward Operating Base Scorpion and the Armor Branch School. Assuming this to be true, (as it is hard to tell, but it appears to be a long-track type), then this short track type is a fourth vehicle at Pol-e-Charkhi, and is, as Winget suggests, located at the fence line east of the Armor Branch School. Final note on likelihood of locations
However, due to the lack of photographs, the fact that available photos were taken over five years, the likelihood of further damage to the vehicles from scrapping (thus making it exceptionally difficult to identify individual vehicles), and the fact that some may have been moved around over time, it is near impossible to say where these vehicles are currently, what condition they are in, and how many vehicles are actually left. Possible Salvage
According to Ian Parker, the US Armor and Cavalry Museum contacted him in 2015 about arranging an export of at least one Disston. The ANA (Afghan National Army) would not even begin to entertain the offer without substantial bribes at multiple levels. He reports that he was offered a T-27, but in his opinion, getting it out through Pakistan would have been more trouble than it would have been worth.
Other potential users
The attempt to sell Kuwait and Romania Disston Tractor Tanks, and the successful sale to Afghanistan is documented with primary sources and clear photographic evidence. However, there were three more reported attempts to sell the vehicle. These are: the US Military (namely the US Army and US Marine Corps), Canada, New Zealand, and China. There is a general lack of credible evidence for each of these potential users/buyers, but the claims cannot be categorically dismissed either. In some cases, there has been difficulty obtaining the original source material for the claims, however, additional research on the claim has been undertaken in each case.
Sources will suggest that at some point between 1933 and 1935, the US Army was offered the tanks, but refused to buy any. In the same time frame, the USMC was reportedly interested and briefly operated sixteen. One source suggests that these tanks were from a diverted order from the Chinese, but this is not a substantiated claim. There is no photographic evidence for any of these suggestions, nor are there any available primary sources. Having contacted the US Army Center of Military History, and US Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) for more information, both stated that they have no records of the Disston Tractor Tank.
Charles Lemons has stated that there is no photographic evidence for the Disston ever being in US military service. He suggests that the USMC would certainly have taken photographs if they ever did operate any. The USMC was still using the 6-ton M1917 (US license built Renault FT) into the late 1920s, after which the tank companies were disbanded. Interest in USMC tank units awakened again in 1936 and the Corps was interested in Marmon-Herringtons.
It is his opinion that the Disston would not have been a good choice for the Marines because of its weight and size, and therefore, none were bought by the USMC.
According to “The Great Tank Scandal, The Universal Tank” by David Fletcher, there were suggestions to mechanize the New Zealand Army with the Disston Tractor Tank. This claim’s original source is a paper written in 1938, although the exact paper is not source cited by Fletcher and cannot be traced further.
The later Bob Semple tractor tank from 1942 was a very similar design because it was built using a postcard depicting a Disston Tractor Tank. The Bob Semple was based on the similar Caterpillar RD8 (from 1939), featured suspension that was lengthened in nearly the exact same manner, a similar turret design, same hatch designs, and even featured the exact same pistol port design.
According to “Mobilize!: Why Canada Was Unprepared for the Second World War” by Larry D. Rose, in spring, 1935, the General Supply Company of Canada wrote to the National Defense Headquarters offering to produce the tanks for Canada. The proposal was rejected because the tanks were simply too slow. The source for this claim is cited, but unfortunately, obtaining a print copy of this book has proven difficult for the author, and therefore, the original source on Rose’s information about the Disston has not been evaluated.
Regardless, there are no other sources to substantiate this claim, and the National Defense Headquarters and The Library and Archives Canada have both stated that they have no documents relating to this subject.
China is reported to have received (or at least ordered) four tanks. No dates are given by sources for the order date, but according to “A Place to Live and Work: The Henry Disston Saw Works and the Tacony” by Harry C. Silcox, four tanks were built in 1938 and delivered in 1939 because of security concerns. The source for this claim is cited in the book, but due to an issue with obtaining a print copy of Silcox’s book, the source cannot be ascertained at this moment in time. Many other book sources also suggest that China received some tanks, too.
In contradiction to Silcox’s claim of four delivered in 1939, one source suggests that the order was actually canceled in 1935, and these were sent to the USMC – although this claim can be largely dismissed, as it is believed that the USMC use is a myth.
There are no records of any negotiations or attempts to sell the Chinese the vehicles. Even if there were, it seems possible that the Chinese would not be interested in the vehicle. According to “General of Fortune, The fabulous story of One-Arm Sutton“, by Charles Drage, the similar Sutton Skunk might have been marketed to China in late 1932, but the Chinese preparations for war against Japan were in the hands of a German military mission, headed by General Von Seekt, who did not need “talented amateurs like Sutton, nor his ingenious improvised tractor tank“.
Whilst the situation was dire in the mid-late 1930s, especially as Sino-German cooperation was coming to a close by 1938, and it might logically follow that the Chinese would now be willing to buy tractor tanks, there is no credible evidence for even the marketing of Disston Tractor Tanks ever taking place. Also, given that the Sutton Skunk was rejected, when ‘One-Arm Sutton‘ was so well respected in China, it seems unlikely that the Disston Tractor Tank was ever bought by China. If the Disston Tractor Tank was ever sold successfully to China, it is likely that a successful sale would involve Sutton, if he was not, by this time, busy with his mining operation in Korea.
The leading academic on the western armaments trade to China in the early 20th century, Anthony B. Chan was contacted, but unfortunately he has given no comment on the subject.
The Disston Tractor Tank was, frankly, a get rich quick scheme, and the quality of the machine reflects this. Whilst it might be easy to accept the slick advertisements as fact, it was still little more than a tractor, slow and overburdened with some armor plate and a pair of guns.
The Disston Tractor Tank’s production and marketing probably ended not much later than 1937, by which time, the global economy had just about recovered and armies looking for tanks could begin serious projects. The claims about China receiving tanks as late as 1938 or 1939 have not been substantiated, but could be true.
It seems more probable than not that the vehicle was marketed to more nations than recorded in this article – however, relevant documents may remain undisturbed in national archives.
37 mm (1.46 in) M1916 gun
.30 cal (7.62 mm) machine gun (probably a Marlin)
6-8mm or 6-13mm
Unknown. Using photographs, the lowest realistic estimate is at 6 (five in Afghanistan, plus one prototype). The highest estimate, albeit spurious, places it at 36. There are plenty of other estimates.
Prototype Disston Tractor Tank, circa 1933. This one was allegedly made in two hours from scrap metal. Rendition of an Afghan Disston Tractor Tank circa WW2. There were two types – most had lengthened track assemblies, but one retained the original and unmodified Caterpillar Model 35 track assembly.
Five Disston Tractor Tanks on parade in Afghanistan, circa 1937 – the fifth is just out of shot to the right, but the tip of its engine deck and tracks can just be seen. The center tank does not have a lengthened track assembly. This is the only photograph to show Disstons with their armaments.
Several Disston Tractor Tanks in Kabul. The photograph was reportedly taken by a French soldier, in March 2006 at KMTC, Pol-e-Charkhi. According to information provided by Kingston Montgomery Winget, this photo was likely taken between Forward Operating Base Scorpion and the Armor Branch School on the north-west side of Gharib Ghar, close to Range One and Two, and some old, bombed-out buildings. These vehicles are likely to have been moved apart before 2015. These all appear to have long-track suspensions – important to note, as a fourth vehicle with a short track assembly is reported at Pol-e-Charkhi.
More recent view of what appears to be the vehicle in the far right of the above. It appears as though the vehicle has rusted further and the turret and what remains of the gun have been moved. It may have been moved apart from the other three over time Courtesy of Charles Lemons.
Short-track type Disston Tractor tank, circa 2011. According to Charles Lemons, this photo was taken in the “same place” as the above. According to information provided by Kingston Montgomery Winget, this one likely located in a separate vehicle graveyard at the fence line east of the Armor Branch School, along with many old Soviet vehicles, just before the firing ranges. Courtesy of Charles Lemons.
Different view of the above. Courtesy of Charles Lemons.
Different view of above, possibly at an earlier point in time.
Disston Tractor Tank, believed to be at a garrison near Darul Aman Palace in southern Kabul circa 2006 – this is believed to be the one on display at the National Museum of Afghanistan, because it features the dummy gun and clear Afghan marking, now somewhat rusted.
A Disston Tractor Tank on display in the National Museum of Afghanistan. The museum closed in the 1990s when rival Taliban factions fought for control of nearby Darul Aman Palace. The engine grill is probably an Afghan modification to stop the engine from overheating. The gun barrel is also likely a prop, for display purposes. It was last seen near a garrison at Darul Aman Palace, close to where it was originally displayed, missing its suspension and some armor plates.
Different view of the above. Likely earlier, due to the photo being in black and white.
Different view of the above.
Drawing of a Caterpillar Model 35 tractor. These were modified by adding a new, but smaller, wheel in front of the front wheel. The new wheel was held in place by a metal bar which was riveted to the rest of the assembly. It is unclear where the exhaust pipe has been moved to.
1935 advertisement for the Disston Tractor Tank. It is believed to be the prototype design, as the suggestion of scrap metal being used to armor the original model seems to refer to the picture below. The source for this material is unknown.
Advertisement leaflet for the Disston Tractor Tank from Otto Kafka’s correspondence with Kuwait. This appears to show an unaltered photo of the above Disston prototype.View closer here.
Slightly different view of the above.
Otto Kafka’s letter on the Disston Tractor Tank addressed to the Kuwaiti Minister of War. View closer here.
Poor quality photo of several Disston Tractor Tanks. Their exact hull shapes appear slightly different to one another. Unknown location, unknown date – Likely Afghanistan circa mid/late 30s.
Another old photo of the Disston in the National Museum of Afghanistan – on its right, an Indian Pattern Mark IV.
Disston Tractor Tank in Afghan service, circa WWII. Note: This image appears to have been cropped. The original cannot be found, but a wider shot of the image can be viewed here.
Sidenote: Sutton Skunk rip-off?
The Disston Tractor Tank certainly seems to have come into existence shortly after the creation of Francis Arthur Sutton’s “Sutton Skunk“. The vehicle is believed to be made in roughly 1932, and the similarities are clear. Both vehicles were based on a tractor (an M1917 5-ton semi-armored tractor for the Sutton Skunk), both used Disston’s high-quality steel alloy plate, both were made with the intention of exports (for the Sutton Skunk, China), and both were made at Disston’s Steel Works. Based on the limited information available on both vehicles, the Sutton Skunk seems to have been developed first. The Caterpillar Company was based Peoria, Illinois, where the Sutton Skunk was made, and it may have perhaps been seen by the Caterpillar Company. 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.
“Mobilize!: Why Canada Was Unprepared for the Second World War” by Larry D. Rose
“A Place to Live and Work: The Henry Disston Saw Works and the Tacony” by Harry C. Silcox
“US Military Tracked Vehicles” by Fred W. Crimson
“Tanks of the World 1915-45” by Peter Chamberlain & Chris Ellis
“The Great Tank Scandal, The Universal Tank” by David Fletcher “General of Fortune, the fabulous story of One-Arm Sutton” by Charles Drage
“Armata Română şi Evoluţia Armei Tancuri. Documente. 1919-1945” by Commander Doctor Marian Moşneagu, Doctor Lulian-Stelian Boţoghină, Professor Mariana-Daniela Manolescu, Doctor Leontin-Vasile Stoica, and Professor Mihai-Cosmin Şoitariu Email correspondence with Charles Lemons, the National Defense Headquarters (Canada), the Library and Archives Canada, US Army Center of Military History, US Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), Pete of vintagesaws.com
Discussions with Ian Parker, Kingston Montgomery Winget, Steve Tyliszczak, and Dean Larsen – all US soldiers in Afghanistan Esotericarmour.blogspot wwiiafterwwii.wordpress britishlibrary.typepad aviarmor.com g503.com forums network54.com forums overlord-wot.blogspot warhistoryonline.com testofbattle.com planetarmor.com
History forgets. Files are lost and mislaid. But this book seeks to shine a light, offering a collection of cutting edge pieces of historical research detailing some of the most fascinating arms and armament projects from the 1920s to the end of the 1940’s, nearly all of which had previously been lost to history.Included here are records from the UK’s MI10 (the forerunner of GCHQ) which tell the story of the mighty Japanese heavy tanks and their service during the Second World War.
United Kingdom/United States of America (1944)
Tank Destroyer – Approximately 2,000 Built
Turning the Sherman into a killer
From the hedgerow of Normandy, France, to the hills of Italy and the plains of Netherlands, the Firefly was one of the few Allied tanks the Germans learned to fear… Among the most potent Allied conversion of the war, and certainly one of the deadliest version of the Sherman, it was a clever -although risky and improvised- move to try to keep up with the latest German tank developments. At that time, the “basic” M4 Sherman equipped the Allies almost exclusively, from the US to the British, Canadian, ANZACS, Free Polish and Free French forces, and its limitations were well known before 1944.
Hello dear reader! This article is in need of some care and attention and may contain errors or inaccuracies. If you spot anything out of place, please let us know!
Its basic 75 mm (2.95 in) gun was excellent to deal with other tanks at reasonable ranges and against armor up to 75 mm (2.95 in), or against fortifications and infantry. But facing the latest versions of the Panzer IV, the Panther and Tiger, it was woefully inadequate. However, the British Army had just received the superlative 17 pounder, which proved itself able to nail any known Panzer. Mated with the Sherman, this stopgap combination (before the new generation of Allied tanks could enter service) became lethal, and added its own weight to the Allied effort to secure victory. Preserved Firefly, showing its camouflaged barrel, as seen in 2008.
The idea of putting the 17 Pounder (76.2 mm/3 in) on a Sherman was long opposed by the Ministry of Supply. It finally happened largely due to the efforts and perseverance of two officers, British Major George Brighty, with the help of Lieutenant Colonel Witheridge, an experienced veteran of the North African campaign and wounded at Gazala. Despite reports and refusals, they managed to pursue the project by themselves and eventually get the concept accepted. Massive delays also began to appear in the development of the official projects which were meant to mount the new gun. Brighty had already made attempts of the conversion at the Lulworth Armoured Fighting School in early 1943. This first version had the whole recoil system removed, locking in effect the gun in place, while the tank bluntly absorbed the recoil. Witheridge joined Brighty due to the doubts of the A.30, Cruiser Mark VIII Challenger being ready in time and lobbied actively for the same idea, providing his assistance and solving the recoil problem.
They received a note from the Department of Tank Design to cease their efforts. However, thanks to Witheridge’s connections, they eventually convinced the head of the Royal Armoured Corps. They then won over the Director General of Weapon and Instrument Production, and the Ministry of Supply, who ultimately gave them full support, funding, and an official approval. In October-November 1943 already, enthusiasm and knowledge about the project grew. In early 1944, before the new delays of the Challenger and inability of the Cromwell turret ring to receive the 17 pdr became known, the programme was eventually given the ‘highest priority’ by Winston Churchill himself in preparation for D-Day. Ex-Dutch Firefly preserved at the Amersfoort Cavalry Museum
About the 17 pounder
This legendary piece of ordnance was the first of the many ROF (Royal Ordnance Factory) cannons which came to fame postwar. These included the rifled L7 105 mm (4.13 in) and later the L11 120 mm (4.72 in) gun that was given to the Chieftain and Challenger. The 17 pounder was a 76.2 mm (3 in) gun with a length of 55 calibres. It had a 2,900 ft/s (880 m/s) muzzle velocity with HE and HEAT rounds and 3,950 ft/s (1,200 m/s) with APDS or Armor Piercing Capped, and Ballistic Capped. These figures allowed it to defeat armor in the range of 120-208 mm (4.72-8.18 in) in thickness at 1,000 m and up to 1,500 m with the APDS.
The design of the gun was ready in 1941 and production started in 1942. It proved itself time and again in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy, with the first action in February 1943. So the idea to have it inside a tank turret was a priority, since the QF 6-pdr was found inadequate by 1943. However, the 17 pounder was long and heavy. It therefore needed much reworking and compromises to have it installed in a turret, and intermediary solutions had to be found. By 1944, the Archer used it, as well as the Achilles (M10 Wolverine), the Challenger, and later the Comet. 17 Pounder ammo rounds being loaded by the crew of a Sherman Firefly. Notice the camouflage nets around the turret, mantlet and gun barrel
The work of genius was that of successfully cramming the heavy gun into a turret it was never designed for. By doing it, W.G.K. Kilbourn, a Vickers engineer, allowed the quick conversion of the most prolific Allied tank. This ensured that no changes in maintenance, supply and transport chains were needed. These were quite critical factors after D-Day.
There were a few changes made to the chassis, most of which were Mk.I hybrids (cast glacis) and Mark Vs, except for the modified ammo cradles and the hull gunner position being eliminated to make room for more ammo. The turret interior was also completely modified. The rear was emptied to allow the gun to recoil and a counterweight was added to the rear to balance the long barrel. This “bustle” now housed the radio, formerly at the back of the turret, and could be accessed by a large hole in the casting. The mantlet was also modified, 13 mm (0.51 in) thicker than the original. The loader also had his position changed. A new hatch had to be cut into the top of the turret over the gunner’s position since the size of the new gun prevented the gunner from using the normal hatch.
But the 17-pdr itself still had a one-meter long recoil course, and the whole recoil system was completely modified. The main recoil cylinders were shortened while additional new cylinders were added to take advantage of the turret width. The gun breech was rotated 90 degrees to allow the loader to sit on the left. The gun cradle also had to be shortened, which caused stability concerns. These were solved by the adoption of a longer untapered section at the base of the barrel. Therefore, the Firefly had it’s custom tailored version of the 17 pdr. Polish Sherman Firefly at Namur, in Belgium, in 1944
Main Gun penetration figures
Official British War Department test figures show that the 17pdr anti-tank gun firing armor piercing AP rounds would penetrate the following thickness of homogeneous armour plate and these distances: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 119.2 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 107.3 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 96.7mm. When firing armor-piercing capped (APC) rounds at face-hardened armor plate these are the test results: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 132.9 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 116.5 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 101.7 mm. When fired at sloped armour it was estimated there would have been 80% success at 30 degrees’ angle of attack.
The Firefly in Action
The Firefly was ready in numbers and filled the 21st Army Group’s Armored Brigades in 1944, just in time for D-Day. This was fortunate because Allied intelligence did not anticipate the presence of enemy tanks, of which the numerous Panthers were formidable adversaries for the Sherman.
Ken Tout summed up his impressions about the Firefly, then at the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry: “The Firefly tank is an ordinary Sherman but, in order to accommodate the immense breach of the 17-pounder and to store its massive shells, the co-driver has been eliminated and his little den has been used as storage space. … The flash is so brilliant that both gunner and commander need to blink at the moment of firing. Otherwise they will be blinded for so long that they will not see the shot hit the target. The muzzle flash spurts out so much flame that, after a shot or two, the hedge or undergrowth in front of the tank is likely to start burning. When moving, the gun’s overlap in front or, if traversed, to the side is so long that driver, gunner and commander have to be constantly alert to avoid wrapping the barrel around some apparently distant tree, defenceless lamp-post or inoffensive house”
British Firefly crossing a bridge, Operation Goodwood
Fortunately, the Firefly was also present. The British and Commonwealth units had to face over 70% of all German armor deployed during the Battle of Normandy, including the much-feared SS Panzer units, in particular around Caen. In turn, the Germans learnt to recognise and respect the Firefly, which often became their #1 priority target in most engagements. Such was the damage they inflicted. In response, the crews usually painted the protruding half of the barrel with an effective countershading pattern to try to disguise it as a regular Sherman. A common tactic was to place the Fireflies in good hull-down positions in support of other Shermans, covering them in the advance each time an enemy tank would reveal itself, at least in theory.
Their effectiveness rapidly became legendary, as testified by the most enviable hunting scores of all Allied tanks. On 9 June 1944, Lt. G. K. Henry’s Firefly knocked-out five Panthers from the 12th SS Panzer Division in rapid succession during the defense of Norrey-en-Bessin. Other Shermans were credited with two more, out of a total of 12, successfully repelling the attack. On June 14, Sgt. Harris of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards destroyed five Panthers around the hamlet of Lingèvres, near Tilly-sur-Seulles, changing position in between. Even the most feared German top ace tank commander, Michael Wittman, was presumably killed by a Canadian Firefly. This famous action was credited to Ekins, the gunner of Sergeant Gordon’s Sherman Firefly from the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, A-Sqn. He destroyed three Tigers in a row, one of which was presumably that of Michael Wittman, near Cintheaux, in August 1944. Fireflies of the Irish Guards group, operation Market Garden
In total, the 1900+ Fireflies were used by the 4th, 8th, 27th, 33rd Armored Brigades, the Guards Armoured Division and the 7th and 11th Armoured Division in Normandy and north-western Europe, including the Netherlands and Northwestern Germany. In Italy, it was deployed with the British 1st and 6th Armoured Divisions. The Canadians had Fireflies with the 1st (Italy) and 2nd Brigades and in the 4th and 5th Canadian Armoured Divisions, mostly in north-west Europe in 1945. The 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade operated 36 Firefly 1Cs during the siege of Dunkirk in 1944. The 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade had some during the Italian campaign, as did the Polish 1st Armoured Division (NW Europe) and 2nd Armoured Brigade (Italy), and the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy. After the war, Fireflies were still used by Italy, Lebanon (until the 1980s), Argentina, Belgium and the Netherlands (until the late 1950s).
British Firefly at the Bovington Tank Museum in 2014
Sherman Firefly specifications
19’4” (25’6” oa) x 8’8” x 9′ (5.89/7.77 oa x 2.64 x 2.7 m)
Rare Mk.Ic composite Firefly Tulip, the ultimate tank hunter. It was given RP-3 rockets also used by the Hawker Typhoon.
All Illustrations are by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.
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American M4 Sherman Tank – Tank Encyclopedia Support Shirt
Give ’em a pounding with your Sherman coming through! A portion of the proceeds from this purchase will support Tank Encyclopedia, a military history research project.Buy this T-Shirt on Gunji Graphics!
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