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WW2 Czechoslovak Tankettes WW2 Yugoslav Armor

Škoda Š-I-d (T-32)

Czechoslovakia/Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1936)
Tankette – 8 Purchased

In an effort to equip its cavalry divisions with armored vehicles, the Yugoslav Royal Army began a series of negotiations with several European nations. While for a variety of reasons almost all would end up unrealized, one would, to some extent, be successful. After a number of examinations and testing of various armored vehicles, finally, in 1936, a deal was made with the Czechoslovakian weapon manufacturer Škoda for the acquisition of 8 Š-I-d tankettes. These were delivered in August 1937 and remained in service up to 1941.

A column of Š-I-d tankettes in Yugoslav service. Source: Wiki

Need for Modernization

During the 1930s, armies in Europe, such as France, for example, were slowly modernizing their cavalry units by attaching various mechanized elements to increase their speed and combat effectiveness. Horses were being replaced with trucks that could transport soldiers, weapons, and supplies. To increase the offensive capabilities of these new mechanized units, armored vehicles, such as tanks and armored cars, were being attached to them.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s neighbors also initiated such reorganizations of their cavalry units to some extent. Not wanting to be left behind in this arms race, the Yugoslav Royal Army decided to implement a similar reorganization of its own cavalry divisions. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia originally had only two cavalry divisions, one formed after the First World War, and the second in 1921. These would be supplemented by the cavalry brigade which was attached to the Royal King’s Guard unit. In 1930, a bicycle battalion was also attached to each cavalry division. More serious steps in the motorization of these two divisions were initiated by General Milan Nedić in 1934. It was planned to attach a motorized regiment to each division. However, it was necessary to obtain some light tanks or tankettes for these cavalry units.

The Yugoslav Royal Army had fewer than 60 Renault FTs and its modified M-28 counterpart available in its inventory. Given the obsolescence and poor speed of available FT tanks, another vehicle was necessary to fulfill this role. This was not as easy a task as it seems at first glance. Europe at that time was getting deeper into a political fracture between the Western Allies and Germany. Countries that had a good relationship with Yugoslavia, such as France, wanted to dispose of their older surplus models first, keeping the new models for themselves in case of war with Germany. These older designs were not appealing to the Yugoslav Royal Army officials, so they turned to other potential candidates. These included Poland, Czechoslovakia, and even the Soviet Union.

The Renault-Kégresse M-28 in Yugoslav service. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.info

Search For A Proper Solution

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Poland had relatively good military cooperation, with the acquisition of different military equipment and weapons. In 1932, Poland and the Yugoslav Royal Army signed an agreement for the purchase of some 14 Polish Renault FT tanks. A year later, one TK-3 tankette was tested to see if it satisfied the Royal Yugoslav Army’s requirements. While not much is known about these trials, it appears it was not successful, as no contract was ever signed.

Similarly, Czechoslovakia also had good cooperation with the Yugoslav Royal Army. Both countries were members of the so-called ‘Little Entente’, the alliance formed in 1920-21 between Yugoslavia, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia possessed two well known military weapon manufacturers, Škoda (Pilsen) and Českomoravská Kolben-Daněk, ČKD (Prague). Škoda officials presented their new OA vz.27 armored car to the Yugoslav delegation during 1930. While the Yugoslav delegation was interested in this vehicle, due to its high price, nothing came from this. In 1933, both companies presented their new tankette designs to Royal Yugoslav Army officials. Škoda was the first to deliver its vehicle, which arrived in Yugoslavia in July 1933. A month later, the ČKD vz.33 tankette also arrived. After a series of tests and evaluations, both tankettes performed poorly. While the MU-4 had constant engine problems, the Yugoslav Royal Army showed interest in it, and asked Škoda officials to, if possible, improve its overall performance for new testing. The ČKD vz.33 tankette, on the other hand, was immediately rejected.

While the Yugoslav Royal Army showed interest in the MU-4, due to its engine problems, no orders were issued. Source: Wiki

The Škoda engineers implemented some improvements on the MU-4, mostly regarding its weak engine, which was replaced with a stronger one. Once this and other minor modifications were done, it was once again tested by the Royal Yugoslav Army in late October 1934. While performing much better, and despite the initial negotiation for 40 such vehicles, nothing came from this.

Much later, in May of 1940, a Yugoslav Trade Delegation negotiated with the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, for the acquisition of military equipment. A total of 300 tanks were requested. While the Soviets initially agreed to this, not a single tank was ever given to Yugoslavia. The Soviets simply did not trust the Yugoslav authorities and constantly postponed the delivery of the promised vehicles.

The Š-I-d Prototype 

The early Škoda armored designs were mostly armed with machine guns. In 1935, its design teams began working on a new design. This time, however, the new vehicle was to be armed with one machine gun and a 37 mm gun. The prototype of this new tankette, which was designated Š-I-d, was completed by mid-1935.

The Š-I-d suspension consisted of two pairs of road wheels suspended using leaf springs. Three return rollers, a front-drive sprocket, and a rear positioned idler completed the running gear. The crews and the armament were placed in a box-shaped superstructure that had a command cupola on it. The armament consisted of a centrally mounted 37 mm A-3 gun, provided with 25 rounds of ammunition. On the front side of the front superstructure, a single 7.9 mm ZB. vz. 26 machine gun was placed with 2,600 rounds of ammunition. The frontal armored plates, which were fixed using bolts, were 20 mm thick. The sides were 10 mm, the rear 8 mm, and the bottom only 5 mm thick. This vehicle was powered by a 60 hp @ 2500 rpm Škoda engine. With this engine and a weight of 4.5 tonnes, the maximum speed was 41 km/h.

The Š-I-d Prototype source: aviarmor.net

A Deal is Made

The same year as this vehicle was completed, 1935, it was presented Yugoslav Royal Army. The Š-I-d was a great improvement over the previous Škoda works, and the Yugoslav Royal Army showed great interest in it. After evaluation and testing, some changes were requested before an agreement was to be signed. These mainly included increasing the frontal armor protection from 20 to 30 mm. Strangely enough, the later delivered vehicles had a frontal armor that was slightly increased to 22 mm. Why this was not implemented or why the Yugoslav Royal Army accepted this is not clear. Regardless, the Ministry of the Army and Navy of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Škoda finally signed a contract on 30th June 1936. According to this contract, 8 such improved tankettes were bought at a total price of nearly 6 million Czechoslovak Crowns. These were to be completed and transported to Yugoslavia within the next 11 months. Due to delays in production, these were finally delivered in two batches, with the first one arriving on 14th August and the second on 25th August 1937.

Four newly produced Š-I-d at Škoda. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

While the 8 improved Š-I-d were delivered to Yugoslavia, the prototype remained at Škoda. It would remain there until April 1940, when a German SS delegation bought it. It was delivered to Germany in July 1940, and from that point on, its ultimate fate is unknown, but it was likely scrapped.

Name

The Š-I-d designation is actually an abbreviation. “Š” stands for the first letter of the manufacturer, Škoda. “I”, the Roman numeral for ‘1’, represents the vehicle category, in this case, a tankette (category II was for light tanks and category III was for medium tanks). The “d” stands for “dělový”, which was a gun-armed version designation. The improved Š-I-d was accepted into service under the designation “Брза борна кола T-32” (Eng. Fast fighting vehicle). What precisely the letter ‘T’ or the number 32 meant is not mentioned in the sources. The Royal Yugoslav Army at that time did not use the term tank. Among the soldiers that were operating these vehicles, these were known as Škoda Šid, likely imitating the name of a Serbian town named Šid.

There are some disagreements between different authors about the correct designation for this vehicle. For example, D. Babac (Elitni Vidovi Jugoslovenske Vojske u Aprilskom Ratu) mentions this vehicle’s designation as S id. B. D. Dimitrijević (Borna Kola Jugoslovenske Vojske 1918-1941) describes the prototype being named as Š-1-d, while the production vehicles were named Š1D. To further complicate the matter, H. L. Doyle and C. K. Kliment (Czechoslovak armored fighting vehicles 1918-1945) mention this vehicle as T-3D. To avoid any further confusion, this article from this point on will refer to the vehicle as the T-32.

Design

Hull

The hull of this vehicle was divided into three sections, the front part, where the transmission was positioned, the center crew compartment, and the rear positioned engine compartment. The hull was slightly shorter in contrast to the prototype, having a length of 3.58 m compared to 3.7 m. The width was almost the same, being 1.95 m, while the prototype was 2 m wide.

Suspension

In comparison to the prototype, the T-32 had a slightly modified suspension. It consisted, per side, of two pairs of road wheels, suspended by leaf-spring units, and one additional road wheel suspended on a vertical spring. There was one large front drive sprocket, rear positioned idler, and four small return rollers.

The T-32 suspension is evident here. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

Engine

The T-32 was powered by a (sources do not give us a precise type or name) Škoda 60 hp (44.2 kW) @2,500 rpm petrol engine. With a weight of 4.8 tonnes, or 5.8 tonnes, depending on the source, the maximum speed was 41 km/h. The T-32 had a fuel load of 115 liters, which provided it with an operational range of 260 km.

The engine compartment was completely covered and protected with armored plates. On the sides of the engine compartment were two exhaust pipes. On top of the engine compartment, a large box with an unknown purpose was positioned.

While the rear engine compartment was fully enclosed, on top of it was a large box with an unknown purpose. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

Superstructure

The superstructure consisted of a simple rectangular armored shape. It was not completely flat, as its sides were slightly angled, though the precise angle is not mentioned in the sources. The front plate had an opening in the center, where the main gun was placed. Left of it was a small observation port. To the right was the much larger driver visor port. If these were additionally protected with armored glass is not mentioned in the sources. There was an additional visor port placed to the right of the driver. The rear plate was used to store two spare road wheels. Additional working tools could be attached to the superstructure sides.

On the front plate, two observation ports were located. The larger one was provided for the driver. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info
A smaller visor port was placed on the right side of the superstructure. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

The superstructure top plate was mostly flat, with a small portion of it being slightly curved toward the front of the vehicle. On the left, a large round-shaped command cupola was positioned, with a much simpler hatch for the driver next to it. The commander’s cupola was provided with four large observation ports, each placed to cover one side of the vehicle.  On top of the cupola, a cylinder-shaped object probably served as a flag port that was used by the commander to communicate with other vehicles.

A good view of the T-32 top, note the right open hatch was for the driver. The commander would enter and exit the vehicle through his command cupola. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info
Close-up view of the command cupola. Quite interestingly, and somewhat unusually, a mount for an additional machine gun is seen, which was not present on other vehicles. This was probably used during an exercise. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

Armor

The T-32’s armor consisted of armored plates that were held in place using bolts. The front armor was 22 mm thick. The side armor was 12 mm and the rear was 8 mm thick. The vehicle’s bottom was only 5 mm thick. This vehicle was very lightly protected. Its best protection was its small overall size. These armor values are taken from N. Đokić and B. Nadoveza (Nabavka Naoružanja Iz Inostranstva Za Potrebe Vojske I Mornarice Kraljevine SHS-Jugoslavije). On the other hand, D. Denda mentions that the maximum armor thickness was 30 mm.

Armament

For its small size, the T-32 was remarkably well-armed. Its main armament consists of a Škoda 37 mm ÚVJ gun (sometimes called Škoda 37 mm A3). Part of the gun and its upper recoil cylinder were protected with a steel jacket. The elevation of this gun was -10° to +25°, while the traverse was 15° in both directions. It was a modern gun at that time and could penetrate some 30 mm of armor at 500 meters. The composition of the ammunition load varies between the sources, with authors disagreeing between 25 to 42 rounds.

Secondary armament included a ZB vz.30 J machine gun. It was positioned in a small ball mount on the right side of the vehicle’s superstructure. The elevation for the  ZB vz.30 J machine gun was -10° to +20°, while the traverse was 15° in both directions. The ammunition load consisted of 1,000 rounds.

 

For a tankette, the T-32 was quite formidably armed, with a 37 mm gun and a machine gun. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

Crew

The T-32 had a crew of two, including the commander and the driver. The commander was positioned on the left side of the vehicle. Besides commanding, the commander was also responsible for operating the main gun, including finding targets, loading the gun, and firing it. The driver, who was positioned on the right side, operated the machine gun. Due to the small size of the vehicle, no more crew members could be placed inside it. This arrangement greatly diminished the effectiveness of the crew, as they were simply overburdened with the different tasks that they had to perform.

Service Before the War

Once in Yugoslavia, these 8 vehicles were used to form the Eskadron brzih bornih kola (Eng. fast combat vehicle squadron). This was divided into two platoons, each with four vehicles, supplemented by two armored cars, and two improvised armored trucks. The squadron was stationed at the Cavalry School in Zemun, near Belgrade.

While more modern than other armored vehicles that were in Yugoslav Royal Army service, the T-32’s performance was somewhat disappointing. While it possessed good firepower, its weakest part was the poor suspension design, which made it prone to frequent breakdowns. This, in turn, meant that only a few vehicles were operational at any given time, while the remaining ones had to be sent to an army workshop for repair. In the Yugoslav Royal service, the T-32s were painted in a three-tone camouflage of brown, green, and ochre.

The T-32 used the standard Czechoslovak three-tone camouflage, which was unchanged in Yugoslav service. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info
A colored picture of the T-32 Source: https://www.armedconflicts.com/CZK-Skoda-S-I-D-t71735

In the lead-up to the war with the Axis powers that began in April 1941, the T-32s were extensively used in various military exercises and occasionally on parades. The T-32s were involved in military exercises at Ada Ciganlija, near Belgrade, in 1940. These exercises were actually the first-ever recorded color documentary videos made in Yugoslavia.

A T-32 during a river crossing exercise near Belgrade during late September 1940. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

In March 1941, the government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was negotiating with the Germans to join the Axis powers. A group of pro-Western Yugoslav Air Force officers, under the leadership of General Dušan Simović, staged a coup on 27th March 1941 in order to prevent this from happening. They were supported by the R35 tanks, which were deployed at key locations in the capital Belgrade. The T-32s were not initially involved but would participate in the parade in honor of the success of the coup later that day.

While not directly involved in the coup, the T-32s were paraded through the capital after. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

Tactics of Employment  

Despite the appearance of an anti-tank or an assault vehicle, like, for example, the German StuG III series, according to the Royal Yugoslav Army, the T-32 was meant to fulfill the role of a support weapon. It was intended to perform a few different tasks. Reconnaissance of enemy flank positions and attacks on enemy flanks and vital points, but only in cooperation with other units. Frontal direct attacks were to be avoided as much as possible. These were only permitted when the enemy was caught off guard and if sufficient artillery support was available.

While, at first glance, the design of T-32 appears similar to an anti-tank vehicle, it was not designed for this role. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

The T-32 could act as a vanguard, when a platoon would be divided into two groups of two vehicles. The first group would advance, while the second would remain in reserve. In rearguard operations, the T-32 was to attack enemy flanks and thus slow down their movements.

Thus, the T-32 was not intended as a vehicle that would lead an attack, but instead as a support element for other units. To maximize its effectiveness, the crew were to use its low silhouette, good speed, and firepower, and if possible, with a factor of a surprise to their advantage.

Some sources, such as L. Ness (World War II Tanks And Fighting Vehicles) wrongly identify it as an anti-tank vehicle. Despite having a gun with good anti-tank performance against lighter armored targets, the Yugoslav Royal Army never intended it to solely fulfill this role.

The Improved Š-I-J

After initial experiences with the T-32, the Yugoslav military leadership asked Škoda to develop better armored and armed vehicles with a more reliable suspension. In 1939, Škoda presented an improved tankette designated Š-I-J (‘J’ for Jugoslavsky/Yugoslavia) to the Royal Yugoslav Army. While visually quite similar to the T-32, it incorporated a number of improvements, mainly regarding armament and suspension. The Yugoslav Royal Army was pleased with this new model and was interested in purchasing 108 such vehicles, however, nothing came of this in the end.

The improved Š-I-J is armed with a 47 mm gun and a new suspension. While a production order for 108 vehicles was initially placed, nothing would come from this. Source:  forum.warthunder.com

In Combat

Just prior to the Axis attack on Yugoslavia on 6th April 1941, the squadron of fast combat vehicles, with all 8 T-32s, was based in Zemun. This unit was also supplemented with an old First World War-era armored car and two indigenously armored trucks. The primary mission of this unit was to protect the capital Belgrade from any possible enemy attack from the north or an airborne assault. The commander of the unit at that time was Cavalry Major Dušan G. Radović.

While the Axis attack was anticipated, the Yugoslav military planners failed to estimate its sheer size and speed of advance. Almost from the start, the Yugoslav Royal Army was in complete disarray and chaos, with the majority of units failing to fully mobilize their manpower. The squadron of fast combat vehicles did not participate in the war up to 10th April. Given the Axis attack from Bulgaria in the east, this unit received an order to move and protect the Belgrade-Niš area. As it moved toward the city of Niš, it was meant to establish a new base of operations there and go under the control of the command of that area. Due to the general chaos, as the unit was leaving Belgrade, it was ordered by the Commander of the Srem Division to proceed toward the Mladenovac-Aranđelovac area and finally to the city of Topola. At least one T-32 had to be abandoned in Belgrade due to a mechanical breakdown. This particular vehicle was captured by the advancing Germans. Interestingly enough, the T-32s were, due to an unknown reason, not supplied with anti-tank rounds at this point, only with high-explosive rounds.

One T-32 was left abandoned in Belgrade and later captured by the advancing Germans. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

The unit arrived at Topola during the night of 10th April. There, it was placed under the command of the VI Army. On the following day, the unit set up defensive positions around the road that led from Mladenovac to Topola. The same day, at around 10 PM, two T-32s were ordered to carry out a reconnaissance mission toward the city of Kragujevac. The communication lines with this city were lost and the current position of the enemy advance was not clear. Unfortunately for them, the Germans were already in Kragujevac and dispatched a small group of several tanks toward Topola. While on the way to their objective, one T-32 had a mechanical breakdown and had to be abandoned. The second vehicle, commanded by Lieutenant  Ljubomir Mihajlović, continued on its own. It unexpectedly got in the path of the advancing German tanks. Both sides were probably surprised for a few minutes before the German tanks opened fire. Lacking anti-tank rounds, Lieut. Ljubomir Mihajlović could do little to oppose the enemy tanks and ordered the driver to pull back to safety. On the way back, this vehicle too had to be abandoned to a mechanical breakdown.

At 1 PM, the Germans attacked the Yugoslav Topola defense positions. By this point, at least 5 T-32s were still operational. In a counter-attack attempt, the T-32s managed to temporarily stop the German advance. The unit commander’s vehicle alone managed to destroy three German tanks, including a command vehicle. Unfortunately, he was killed while trying to escape his burning vehicle, which was hit by return enemy fire. After three and a half hours of fighting, the Yugoslav positions were finally overrun. The fate of the defending T-32s is not clear. Some may have escaped the destruction of the Yugoslav forces in Topola and moved to  Mladenovac, where they were finally lost.

A number of T-32s had to be abandoned due to frequent breakdowns. This particular vehicle showed the major problem that these vehicles had, namely the weak and poorly designed suspension. The rear idler is completely dislocated from its original position. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

In German Hands

The Germans managed to capture at least some of these vehicles in various conditions. In their service, the T-32 was renamed to Pz. Kpfw. 732 (j). The precise fate of these after this point is not known. What is sure is that not all available vehicles were used by the Germans during the occupation of Yugoslavia. It is very likely that all the captured tankettes were eventually sent for scrap metal at some point during the Second World War. None of the T-32s survived the war and their final fate remains unknown to this day.

German captured T-32s. Their final fate and use after the April War is not known. Source: beutepanzer.ru

Conclusion

Compared with the tankettes from other states, on paper, the T-32 was a major step forward. This tankette had a low silhouette, was fast, well-armed, and armored. However, the T-32 suffered from problems with its suspension, which was structurally very weak and prone to failures. As a result, most of the T-32 vehicles spent months in the Army’s repair workshops. The two-man crew was simply overburdened with the tasks that they had to perform. Lastly, and probably their most major issue, was their small production run of only 8 vehicles. This greatly diminished their combat use and made the acquisition of spare parts difficult given the fact that by 1938, Škoda was in German hands. Nevertheless, the T-32 provided the Yugoslav Royal Army with a more modern vehicle than its armored pool of existing vehicles, albeit in limited numbers only.

Škoda Š-I-d (T-32)

Škoda Š-I-D (T-32) specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 3.58 x 1.95 x 1.76 m (11.7 x 6.3 x 5.7 ft)
Total weight, battle ready  4.8 or 5.8  tonnes
Crew 2 (commander, driver)
Propulsion Škoda  60hp (44,2 kW) @2,500 rpm petrol engine.
Speed 41 km/h (25.4 mph)
Range  260 km (161 miles)
Primary Armament Škoda 37 mm ÚVJ
Secondary Armament 7.9 mm ZB vz.30 J
Armor 5 – 22 mm (0.1 – 0.8 in)

 

Sources

 

Categories
WW2 Yugoslav Armor

Renault FT and Renault-Kégresse in Yugoslav Service

Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1930)
Light Tank – 45 (Renault FT) and 10 to 11 (M-28) Operated

At the start of the 1930s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia bought its first tanks from France. These were the older Renault FT and the slightly improved Renault-Kégresse tanks. While their combat value was limited at best, they served as a base for further development of the armored forces in Yugoslavia. By the time the Axis began their major offensive operation in the Balkans during April 1941, the aging Renault FT and Renault-Kégresse tanks represented nearly half of the armored strength of the Yugoslav Army.

The Renault-Kégresse in Yugoslav service. Source: D. Babac, Elitni Vidovi Jugoslovenske Vojske u Aprilskom Ratu

The birth of the first Yugoslav tank formations

Following the collapse of the Central Powers during the First World War, much of the southern territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were absorbed by the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Kingdom of SHS) during 1918. The newly created army of this Kingdom received a number of weapons from the Allied forces present in the Balkans. This shipment of weapons did not include Renault FT tanks, which were present in smaller numbers within the Allied Balkan forces. In September of 1919, the Kingdom of SHS Army officially requested that some of these be allocated to them. This request was not granted, as the Allies informed the SHS Army representatives that these were to be stationed in Bulgaria and Romania. This did not stop the SHS Army officials, which sent an additional delegation to France directly to ask for permission to receive these tanks. Eventually, these attempts proved to be futile, as the French Ministry of War stated (in November of 1919) that this was not possible. The Kingdom of SHS was instead reassured that, once sufficient numbers of Renault FTs were available, these would be allocated to them.

In early December of 1919, Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, the commander of Allied forces in the Balkans, officially allowed that an SHS group of 10 drivers and as many mechanics as possible be moved to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia to begin training and familiarisation with the 8 Renault FT tanks which were stationed there. On 12th December, by the direct orders of the SHS Ministry of War, the first Armored Company, equipped with 8 Renault FTs (which were still in Sofia) was to be formed. A military delegation was formed, which consisted of 6 officers and non-commissioned officers and 10 artillerymen in addition to 10 drivers and 3 mechanics. In February 1920, the French officially started to transfer these tanks to the SHS Army. The contingent of 8 Renault FTs consisted of 3 armed with machine guns, 4 with 37 mm guns and one radio (télégraphie sans fil – TSF) version.

It is important to note that the SHS and later Yugoslav Army did not use the term ‘tank’, but instead ‘Борна Кола’. This term could be translated as armored or even combat vehicle, depending on the source used. To avoid confusion, this article will use the term tank.

There is some disagreement in the sources on the precise date or even number of tanks of this type operated by the Yugoslav Army. The previously mentioned information was according to author N. Đokić (Vojni informator). Other authors, like Captain Mag. D. Denda and D. Dimitrijević, give a completely different account of how the first tanks were acquired. At the end of 1920s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (the name was changed in 1929) took a loan of some 300 million French Francs for purchasing their first tanks. By doing this, the Yugoslav Army was able to acquire 21 Renault tanks. The first group of 10 tanks arrived in April, and the remaining on 11th July 1929. These included 10 Renault FTs and 11 improved Renault-Kégresse tanks (in many Serbian sources marked as ‘M-28’, ‘M.28’, or even as ‘M28’). Author B. B. Dimitrijević (Borna kola Jugoslovenske vojske 1918-1941) mentions that there is a possibility that the M-28 used by the Yugoslav Army had a stronger engine, but with no more information about it.

The precise number of Renault-Kégresse tanks acquired is not completely clear in the sources, ranging from 10 to 11 vehicles. The reasons why this version was bought and not the old FT is not mentioned in the sources. While they were almost identical to the older Renault FT model, the M-28 had a different suspension which necessitated the acquisition of additional spare parts. The M-28s were used to form the first tank company in the Yugoslav Army, stationed in Kragujevac during April 1930. It would be allocated to Sarajevo, where a tank training school was formed. The remaining Renault FTs would be used to equip another Tank Company, which was stationed in the capital, Belgrade. The French also provided a group of instructors to help train crews for these vehicles. The precise strength of these two companies is unclear. The first actual documents that mention these units’ peacetime compositions are dated from 1935. According to them, each Company contained 12 tanks. Each Company was further divided into four Platoons, each with 3 tanks.

A Yugoslav M-28 on a parade held in Belgrade in 1930. Only a small number of these tanks were ever produced by the French and only 10 to 11 were sold to Yugoslavia. Source:www.srpskioklop

However, author D. Predoević (Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj) indicates that the first 21 tanks were all actually Renault FTs. He also notes that, in 1935, an additional 20 tanks were bought. To complicate matters even further, both he and D. Babac (Elitni Vidovi Jugoslovenske Vojske u Aprilskom Ratu) state that the Yugosavian Army had 20 and not 10 M-28 tanks.

Renault FT

During the First World War, France employed tanks like the St-Chamond and Schneider CA 1 in an attempt to break the German lines. These designs were far from perfect and were plagued by a number of issues (limited firing arc, low armor thickness etc.). However, the most significant problem was the slow and expensive production. During 1916, in French military circles, the idea of using cheap and easy-to-produce light tanks began to take hold. By the end of 1916, after the first wooden prototype was completed and inspected, a production order for 100 vehicles was placed. This light tank received the simple Renault FT designation.

At the start of the following year, the first prototype was tested and, after some delays, production orders for 1,150 such tanks were placed. Of these, some 500 were to be armed with one 8 mm machine gun, while the remaining 650 were to be armed with a 37 mm gun. The Renault FTs were first used in combat during the French attempts to stop the large German offensive of 1918. It proved to be a successful vehicle, presenting a small target, having a fully rotating turret, and being available in great numbers. By August 1918, the French managed to produce more than 2,000 Renault FT light tanks.

A preserved gun armed Renault FT tank. Source: Wiki

After the First World War, the Renault FT became generally obsolete and was widely exported by the French Army, which was unwilling to sell their better designs. Those that bought the Renault FT were countries like Poland, the USA, Finland, Japan, Greece, and Yugoslavia amongst others.

In an attempt to somewhat improve the Renault FT’s overall driving performance, during the 1920s, the French army tested a new type of suspension. The completely redesigned Kegresse type suspension consisted of eight smaller road wheels, one return roller and larger idler and drive sprockets. It employed new metal and rubber band tracks. While it offered better driving characteristics, it was only built in limited numbers, mostly due to reduction in the budget of the French Army.

The Renault-Kégresse with the improved suspension. Source: forum.warthunder

Yugoslav-Poland cooperation

After the First World War, the Yugoslav Army was in desperate need of all kinds of weapons, ranging from ordinary rifles to artillery. In 1921, the first negotiations with Poland took place regarding this issue. In the following years, Yugoslavia bought a number of Polish weapons, including aviation bombs, rifle ammunition, artillery pieces, etc. In 1932, Poland and the Yugoslav Army signed an agreement for purchasing some 14 Renault FT tanks. While the Yugoslav Army later showed great interest in the 7TP tank, due to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, nothing came from this.

Polish Renault FT, of which some 14 would be sold to Yugoslavia in 1932. Source: derela.pl

Further developments

Following the arrival of the first tanks, Yugoslav Army cycles began theorizing how to best employ them, about the further acquisition of more tanks and general organization. One of the Yugoslav Generals that advocated for forming Tank Battalions supported by Motorized Infantry placed under unified command was Milan Đ. Nedić. He made the first steps in proposing this plan in 1932. Two years later, the General Staff of the Yugoslav Army, together with King Aleksandar I Karađorđević, examined it. The plan for creating mechanized and armored units met with the approval of Army officials but, more importantly, also the King himself. For the realization of this plan, General Nedić was appointed as the chief of the General Staff in June 1934. His success was short-lived as, only a few months later, the King was assassinated in Marseille while visiting France. General Nedić was removed from his new position shortly after that. He was replaced by General Ljubomir M. Marić, who continued working on extending the armored formations.

The process of reorganization and modernization of Yugoslav forces was accelerated after the start of the Second Italian-Ethiopian war in 1935. France agreed to supply Yugoslavia with an additional contingent of 20 Renault FT tanks during 1935 and 1936 as military aid. The whole operation was held in secrecy by both sides. While the last tank arrived in 1936, it would take almost a whole year before they were actually allocated for troop use.

Organization

By September 1936, there were some 45 Renault FTs and 10 (or 11) M-28s available. That same month, from these vehicles, a Battalion of Armored Vehicles was formed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Pavao J. Begović. This unit is often mistakenly called the First Battalion, a unit which was actually formed later. The Battalion, when it was formed, had only a single Company which was stationed in Belgrade. This Company was used primarily for crew training, but was also used on a military parade held in honor of the king’s birthday in September of 1936. During the same year, a new regulation regarding the Battalion strength was adopted. According to it, the Battalion consisted of one Command unit, three Companies, and a reserve Company. The Command unit had 3 tanks, the same as the reserve Company. The three Companies each had 10 tanks, for a total of 36 tanks. In addition, there was also an independent support Company with 4 tanks. Only in March of 1937 did the Battalion reach full combat readiness with three Companies.

In 1938, the Battalion organization was once again changed. This time, each company was further reinforced with an additional platoon of M-28 tanks. This indicates that the M-28 were not used previously and were probably stored for some eight years. The Battalion strength was increased to 48 tanks in total.

Two years later, the Yugoslav Army bought 54 R35 tanks from France. Thanks to this, it was possible to form an additional Battalion. The original Battalion of Armored Vehicles was renamed the 1st Battalion of Armored Vehicles. The 2nd Battalion of Armored Vehicles was equipped with newly acquired R35 tanks. Most of the 1st Battalion personnel was relocated to the 2nd Battalion, which necessitated retraining the crew members. At the end of 1940, the number of tanks in each Battalion was noted to be 50 tanks. Other changes included that the Command unit did not have tanks and that the strength of each Company was increased to 13 tanks, with 11 more in reserve. Regarding the armament of the FT and M-28 tanks, one-third were armed with machine guns, while the remaining were armed with 37 mm guns. In addition, during this time, elements of the 1st Battalion were rearranged across three major cities. The Command unit with the 1st Company and the reserve Company were stationed in Belgrade (together with the 2nd Battalion). The 2nd Company was positioned in Zagreb (Croatia) and the last in Sarajevo (Bosnia).

In 1938, the Battalion organisation was changed to include an additional platoon of M-28 tanks. This indicates that the M-28 were not used and were probably stored and occasionally used on parades. Source: www.tankarchives

Experience with the FT and M-28 tanks

The Yugoslav Army initiated a number of infantry and tank exercises in order to test the idea of cooperation between these two Army branches. One such exercise was held in hilly terrains in Šumadija (in Serbia). There, the Renault FT proved to be unsuited for supporting infantry due to its unsuitability for bad terrain. Its performance was so poor that the infantry commanders suggested to the High Command to urgently find more modern equipment. In September of 1939, huge exercises that should have included three tank Companies were to be carried out. However, after only a few weeks, this was canceled and never carried out on a larger scale.

There were other problems with the crew training and the mechanical reliability of tanks. For example, the Zagreb stationed Company lacked any proper firing range. For this reason, firing practice was rarely carried out. Mechanical problems with the Renault tanks were also a huge issue. The Renault FT was outdated and generally worn out, while the M-28 had problems with its rubber tracks.

The majority of Renault FT tanks used were armed with a 37 mm gun. This particular picture was taken in April 1940, during a military exercise. Source: D. Predoević, Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj

Camouflage and Markings

The Renault FT and M-28 retained their original French dark green color, even those that were brought from Poland. Some of the vehicles received different types of camouflages, but which precise color is not listed in the sources.

The FTs were usually marked with French numbers between 66000 and 74000 but also with additional four-digit numbers or two Roman numerals. These were painted either on the front of the vehicle or on the suspension. The M-28s were only marked with two-digit numbers ranging from 81 to 88. But according to some older photographs, one vehicle has the number 79 painted on it. It is unclear why this is so (it could be a modern print error in the sources).

The left vehicle has number 79 painted on its side and front. Source: www.tankarchives.ca
The Renault FTs were marked with French numbers ranging between 66000 and 74000. These were, as this vehicle indicates, painted on the front and on the suspension sides. Source: The tank “Renault Ft-17” in photos Magazine

Prior to the war

In the years before the war, the reorganization and rearmament process of the Yugoslav Army was delayed. After the military plan dated 1938, the Yugoslav army was to be reinforced with 252 medium and 36 heavy tanks. Eventually, only 8 T-32 (Š-I-D) vehicles were brought from Czechoslovakia in 1936, with 54 R35 tanks from France in 1940. One of the many reasons why the armored development was slowed down was due to short-sighted military Generals, like Dušan T. Simović, who believed that the tanks were ineffective weapons. Also, Czechoslovakia was under German occupation and France was unwilling to sell modern equipment. While negotiations with the Soviet Union, the USA, and Great Britain were undertaken, nothing came from these. By the time the Axis attacked in April 1941, Yugoslavia could only muster less than 120 armored vehicles.

The April War

In March 1941, the government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was negotiating with the Germans to join the Axis powers. A group of pro-Western Yugoslav Air Force officers, under the leadership of General Dušan Simović, staged a coup on the 27th of March 1941 in order to prevent this from happening. Hitler was furious after this event and ordered that Yugoslavia be occupied. For the upcoming invasion, the Axis forces included 30 German, 23 Italian, and 5 Hungarian Divisions. The Germans alone had some 843 tanks, including 400 modern Panzer IIIs and IVs. The attack was made on the 6th of April 1941, which started the so-called April war.

Opposing them, the Yugoslav Army could muster some 31 Divisions. However, during the attack, only 11 partially formed divisions were available. The lack of mobilization and the overextension of available forces essentially sealed the fate of the Yugoslav Army. When the Axis forces attacked, elements of the 1st Battalion were distributed to three operational bases in Belgrade, Zagreb, Skopje, and Sarajevo. At that time, the Battalion was commanded by Major Stanimir Mišić. To counter the Axis offensive, the scattered elements of these units received orders to move towards Velika Plana (south of Belgrade). But this order was unrealistic due to the rapid enemy advance, poor infrastructure connections, and slow mobilization. As Belgrade was under heavy enemy bombing raids, the Command unit and the reserve Company of this Battalion moved toward its place of gathering at Plana, but without its equipment. They awaited the remaining elements of the units and their own tanks to arrive. By 9th April, due to huge confusion, other units were unable to link up with them, so the personnel of the first Company tried to march to Bosnia, but were captured shortly by the advancing Germans.

The 1st Company was stationed in Skopje (Macedonia). It received orders on the night of the 6th to move toward the village of Pirova. On the way to that destination, one of the tanks broke down and had to be abandoned. The Company formed a defense line around Đevđelije. A German forward reconnaissance unit spotted the Yugoslav defense line. While they were also spotted by the 1st Company, the unit commander refused to open fire. Shortly after that, the 1st Company positions were bombed by German bombers, losing a number of tanks either damaged or completely destroyed. The German ground forces then attacked the 1st Company’s shattered positions. While some Renault FTs tried to fire back, they proved ineffective and nearly all would be lost. Only four tanks managed to escape and, on 8th April, together with other Yugoslav soldiers that survived the German attack in Macedonia, tried to escape to Greece, where the 1st Company effectively stopped to exist.

An abandoned Renault FT somewhere in Macedonia. The photograph was taken on 13th April. Source: B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945.
A destroyed M-28 in Macedonia. While the 1st Company tried to resist the Germans, the obsolete FT and M-28 tanks simply had no chance. Source: rur.rs

The history of the 2nd Company, which was stationed in Zagreb, is not completely clear. While it did not see any action, the precise location of its vehicles during the war is unknown. The main theory is that they never even tried to move from their base. The problem is that German documents after the April war do not mention any tanks being captured in Croatia.

The 3rd Company was evacuated from Sarajevo and transported to the Serbian village of Orašac, near Aranđelovac, on 9th April. Three days later, it was ordered to move towards Lazarevac to provide cover for the retreating Yugoslav forces. They failed to do so and ran out of fuel. The advancing Germans, in the meantime, captured the company’s fuel supply vehicles. The unit commander ordered that all vehicles’ 37 mm guns be sabotaged and made useless to the Germans and that the machine guns be taken with them. They tried to reach Sarajevo, but the commander decided that it was too dangerous to continue on and effectively disbanded the unit.

An M-28 belonging to the 3rd Company, which had to abandon its tanks as they ran out of fuel. The disarmed Yugoslav soldiers (to the left) indicate that this photograph was taken after the April war ended. Source: www.quartermastersection.com

The new owners

After the brief April war, the Germans managed to capture some 78 (out of 120) Yugoslav armored vehicles. These were to be transported back to Germany. Following the uprising against the occupation after June 1941, the Germans were forced to allocate some of these vehicles to fight the Yugoslav Partisans. From the available stocks of captured Renault FTs, the Germans formed 6 Platoons with 5 vehicles each. These were initially engaged against the Partisan forces, supporting the German infantry formations. Due to their general obsolescence, the Renault FTs were mainly replaced with more modern French tanks, like the R35, Somua S35, and the Hotchkiss H35 and 39. Nearly all of the Renault FTs were used instead to equip over 30 auxiliary and improvised armored trains that were used to protect the vital supply lines of the Axis power in the Balkans. Each of these trains was reinforced with at least two Renault FT tanks. They would be used in this role up to the war’s end. It is also unclear but quite possible that the Germans introduced additional Renault FT tanks captured in France or elsewhere.

Captured Yugoslav armored vehicles. While most of these are Renault FTs, in the background, (to the right) a T-32 can be seen. The marking 39 was applied by the Germans. Source: beutepanzer.ru
While initially used in more direct fights against the Partisans, the Renault FTs were quickly removed from this role due to their obsolescence. Source: Bojan B. D. and D. S avić Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945.
The Renault FTs were instead allocated to various improvised and auxiliary armored trains that operated in occupied Yugoslavia during the war. In most cases, these were simply put on any available open wagon. Source: B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945.
Another common practice with the captured Renault FTs that were used in trains was to remove their engine. This allowed the crew to have greater working space. Source: D. Predoević, Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj

The fate of the M-28 tanks is not completely clear. The Germans managed to capture some of them, but how they used them is unknown. There was a video on Youtube of Montenegrin Partisans destroying some captured German equipment, including an M-28 tank. Sadly, this video is no longer available.

An M-28 captured by the Germans. It is unclear, but it is highly possible that the captured M-28s were used by the Germans to rearm some armored trains, the same as the Renault FT tanks. source: D. Predoević, Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj

In Croatian service

After the collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Germans created the Independent State of Croatia. While it was their puppet state and ally, the Germans were quite unwilling to give the Croats any armored vehicles captured from the Yugoslav Army. Nevertheless, the Croatian military forces managed to operate an unknown number of (but likely only a few)  Renault FT tanks. It is not clear how these came into their possession. They were likely captured by the Croats from the 4th Tank Company which was stationed in Zagreb. The use of this tank was possibly quite limited in any other role than perhaps crew training.

A former Yugoslav Renault FT, now in Croatian service. Source: B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945.

In Partisan hands

During the war, the Yugoslav Partisans managed to capture a great number of Axis-operated armored vehicles. Due to a lack of documentation, it is often difficult to identify which precise vehicle they captured and used. By the end of the war, a number of German armored trains with Renault FTs were captured. Their use after the war would be limited at best (if used at all). Today, one surviving Renault FT tank can be seen at the Belgrade military museum.

The surviving Renault FT is located in the capital of Serbia, Belgrade. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.info

Conclusion

The Renault FT and M-28 were the first tanks operated by the Yugoslav Army. By the time these were acquired, in 1930, they were already obsolete. Poor training, a lack of crew and personnel, and mechanical problems due to their age led to poor combat performance when they were employed against the more modern German army. While they played an insignificant role during the 1941 war with Germany, their importance may be regarded more as the first steps in the development of the Yugoslav armored force in the following years.

Yugoslav FT
1st Armored Tank Batallion of the Yugoslav Royal Army, April 1941.

Renault NC2 Yugoslav Royal Army
A Renault NC2 Kegresse, one of the ten or more which were given to the Yugoslav Royal Army. They desperately fought the Wehrmacht during the Balkan campaign, in March-April 1941. They were very similar to the nine FT Kégresse already bought in 1928.

Specifications

Dimensions 5 x 1.74 x 2.14 m
Total weight, battle-ready 6.5 metric tons
Crew 2 (commander/gunner, driver)
Propulsion Renault 18CV 35 hp
Speed 7.5 km/h
Maximum range 35 km
Armament Main: 37 mm SA model 18 gun
Secondary: 8 mm Hotchkiss machine gun machine-gun
Armor 8 to 16 mm

Sources

Categories
WW2 Czechoslovak Prototypes WW2 Yugoslav Armor

Škoda Š-I-j

Czechoslovakia/Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1938)
Tankette – 1 Built

As the Yugoslav Royal Army was in a search of new armored equipment, the Czechoslovak Škoda company was more than willing to offer its armored vehicles products. During the thirties, a few tankettes were presented to the Yugoslav Royal Army but performed poorly on testing so a new vehicle was requested. The following Š-I-D tankette achieved some success and eight were bought, but even this vehicle was deemed insufficient and future improvements were requested. This would lead to the development of the Š-I-j, which was presented to the Yugoslav Royal Army but for unknown reasons was never adopted.

History

In the early 1930s, the Yugoslav Royal Army began a process of reforming and reinforcing with additional equipment and armor for its two cavalry divisions. Each cavalry division consisted of two to three cavalry brigades with two regiments, one artillery squadron, a cycling battalion and other supporting units. It was planned to attach a motorized regiment to each division, supported with armor like light tanks or tankettes.

From the start, there was an issue as to where to acquire this new equipment from. While France and Yugoslavia had good military cooperation, France was unwilling to sell its latest tanks, as it wanted to dispose of the older surplus models first. Through the French, Yugoslavia had at its disposal around 56 older Renault-Kegresse M-28 and FT tanks, some having been bought and some received as military aid in the 1920-30s. By April 1940, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia managed to acquire 54 relatively modern R35 light tanks from France. The Yugoslav Royal Army had even considered acquiring some Soviet tank designs, such as the T-26 or BT series. However, mostly due to political reasons, this was not possible.

Yugoslavia negotiated with Poland and Czechoslovakia about acquiring new equipment. The negotiations with Czechoslovakia were somewhat successful and delivery of only eight Škoda Š-I-D (T-32 in Yugoslav service) was agreed.

The Š-I-D (T-32 in Yugoslav service) on parade. This picture was taken in September 1940 during military exercise near the capital, Belgrade. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

The Š-I-D was perhaps the most modern armored vehicle in the Yugoslav Royal Army. Its general performance, however, proved to be disappointing. While the 37 mm gun was one of the best for its time for its size, the running gear proved to be unreliable, with a poor design that needed constant repair and was easy to break. Another issue was its armor thickness, which the Yugoslav Royal Army never deemed sufficiently strong and required to be improved. For these reasons, the Yugoslav Royal Army officials demanded from Škoda a new tankette with improved running gear, armor and main weapon. Škoda developed a much improved Š-I-j tankette. The prototype, without the gun, was completed in May 1938.

Name

The Š-I-j designation is an abbreviation, with ‘Š’ standing for the manufacturer, Škoda, ‘I’ (Roman number for 1) represents the vehicle category (category I for tankettes, category II for ‘light’ tanks and the category III for ‘medium’ tanks) and ‘j stands for ‘jugoslávský’, Yugoslav. Depending on the source, it was also marked with a capital ‘J’. But, if we take into account that the previous Š-I-D prototype was also marked with a minuscule ‘d’, we can assume that the Š-I-j designation is correct.

Škoda began changing its naming system for its production vehicles in 1940 (or in 1939 depending on the sources) and this included the Š-I-j. There are some disagreements between different authors about its later designation. According to B. Nadoveza and N. Đokić (Odbrambena privreda Kraljevine Jugoslavije), the name was changed in May 1939 to T-I-D, where the capital ‘D’ stands for Diesel. Author D. Predoević (Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj), mentioned that the name was changed to T-3D. To complicate the matter more, authors H. C. Doyle and C. K. Kliment (Czechoslovak armored fighting vehicles 1918-1945) state that the T-3D designation was used for the previously built Š-I-D tankette.

Technical Characteristics

The new Š-I-j tankette had many visual similarities with the previous built Š-I-D. The most obvious change was the redesigned and improved suspension, which had proved to be highly problematic on the previous version. It consisted of two pairs of larger road wheels (on each side), suspended by leaf-spring units. There were two front drive sprockets, two rear idlers and eight return rollers in total (with four on each side).

Drawings of the Š-I-j tankette. Source: www.palba.cz

The vehicle was equipped with (sources do not give us a precise type or name) a 3.77 liter diesel engine giving 44 kW (59 hp)@2200 rpm. The vehicle’s maximum speed was 31 km/h, but the cross-country performance is unknown. While tested with the Yugoslav Royal Army, the operational range was listed as 6 hours not in usual km.

The main armament was the Škoda A9J 47 mm gun with 42 rounds of ammunition. The gun could elevate between -10° to +25° and traverse 15° on both sides. The secondary weapon was a ZB vz.30J machine gun with 1000 rounds of ammunition.

Front view of the Š-I-j tankette. The 47 mm main gun and the machine gun next to it can be observed. The running gear was also improved, which had proved to be highly problematic on the previous version. Source: forum.warthunder.com

The superstructure consists of a simple rectangular armored casemate with a commander’s cupola on top. The armor plates were held in place with rivets. The front armor thickness was 30 mm, the sides 15 mm and the rear was 12 mm thick.

View of the rear side and the engine compartment of the Š-I-j. Source: forum.warthunder.com

The Š-I-j had two crew members: the driver who also used the machine gun, and the commander, who was at the same time the gunner and loader of the main gun. This was far from ideal, but for tankette standards of the era, it was completely normal. To gain access to their battle positions, the commander entered through the command cupola and the driver through the hatch next to it. The crew could observe the surroundings through two larger observation hatches in front, with an additional smaller one located on the driver side. For the commander, there was no need for a side observation hatch, as he had the cupola for all-around view of the surroundings.

Fate

The Š-I-j prototype was presented to a Yugoslav military delegation during March 1939. After examining the vehicle, the delegation had shown interest in the potential purchase of some 108 vehicles. By the end of 1939, the sole prototype was transported to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia for future examination. It is not clear what happened during the examination but no production orders were placed by the Yugoslav Royal Army. Possible reasons for this were that it was either deemed unsatisfactory or that more modifications were required, but the sources are not clear on the matter. It is also possible that the Yugoslav army officials simply lost interest in tankettes and wanted a ‘proper’ tank. In either case, the vehicle was returned to Škoda, where it was taken over by the Germans. Its final fate is unknown, but it can be assumed that it was probably scrapped during the war

Conclusion

While the new Š-I-j had many improvements regarding the armor, the armament, the running gear and the engine, for unknown reasons, it was never adopted by the Yugoslav Royal Army. Had it been put in service it may have been one of the best such very light vehicles in the world mainly due to its armor and armament, as most other similar vehicles were only lightly armored and armed with only machine guns.



Illustration of the Škoda Š-I-j produced by Brian Gaydos, funded by our Patreon Campaign

Specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 3.58 x 2.05 x 1.8 m
Total weight, battle ready 5.8 tons
Crew 2 (commander, driver)
Propulsion Unknown diesel type with 44 kW 2200 rpm, 3.77 liter
Speed 31 km/h
Armament 47 mm A-9J Gun
7.92 mm Vz.30J Machine Gun
.
Armor front plate 30 mm, sides 15 mm, rear 12 mm, floor 20 mm
Total Production 1

Sources

D. Babac (2008), Elitni vidovi jugoslovenske vojske u Aprilskom ratu. Evoluta
B. Nadoveza and N. Đokić (2014), Odbrambena privreda Kraljevine Jugoslavije,
B. B.. Dimitrijević, (2011) Borna kola Jugoslovenske vojske 1918-1941, Institut za savremenu istoriju.
Bojan B. D. and Dragan S.(2011) Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945, Institut za savremenu istoriju.
H.C.Doyle and C.K.Kliment (1979), Czechoslovak armored fighting vehicles 1918-1945, Argus Books Ltd.
D. Predoević (2008) Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj, Digital Point Tiskara
srpskioklop.paluba.info
www.palba.cz

Categories
WW2 Yugoslav Armor

Renault R35 in Yugoslav Service

Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1940)
Light Tank – 54 Purchased

In the interwar period, the Yugoslav Royal Army made some attempts to acquire new armored vehicles. The country that offered the best chance to get this equipment was France for two reasons. First, the relatively good relations between these two countries and the fact that France had a large number of tanks available. Despite the French reluctance to sell newer designs, an agreement for the purchase of 54 Renault R35 tanks would eventually be made. These tanks would be the most numerous armored vehicles that the Yugoslav Royal Army managed to acquire before the Axis invasion in April 1941.

History

In the early 1930s, the Yugoslav Royal Army began a process of reforming its two cavalry divisions with additional armor support in the hope of increasing its potential offensive capabilities. These two cavalry divisions consisted of two to three cavalry brigades with two regiments, one artillery squadron, a cycling battalion and other supporting units. It was planned to attach a motorized regiment to each division supported with armored vehicles like the light tanks or tankettes.

From the start, there was an issue with where to acquire this new equipment from. While France and Yugoslavia had good military cooperation, France was unwilling to sell its latest tanks and wanted to dispose of the older surplus models. Through the French, Yugoslavia had at its disposal around 56 older Renault-Kegresse M-28 and FT tanks, some having been bought and some received as military aid in the 1920-30s. Some of these FT tanks were possibly acquired from Poland.

With the outbreak of World War II, it was almost impossible for the Yugoslav Royal Army to acquire new armored equipment anywhere in Europe. But this did not discourage the Yugoslav Royal Army officials from continuing negotiations with the French Army about buying any available modern armor. The continuous insistence of the Yugoslav military delegations finally bore some fruit in early 1940, when the French Army agreed to sell 54 relatively modern R35 light tanks to Yugoslavia. These arrived in April 1940, just before the German invasion of the West which stopped any future hope of acquiring new vehicles from France.

The R35 tank

The Renault R35 was a French light tank developed during the early thirties to replace the aging FT tank. While the French army tested other heavier designs (Renault D1 and D2), a simpler and cheaper vehicle was deemed more desirable. Work on this tank began in 1933 at the French Army’s request for a new light tank design. Renault was quick to respond and presented its prototype to the French Army which, after a series of modifications (among which was increasing the armor to 40 mm and improving the running gear), placed an order for over 1600 tanks. While the R35 was well protected with 40 mm-thick cast armor, it was plagued with problems such as weak firepower (it had the same 37 mm gun as the FT), just two crew members, a lack of radio and slow speed. During its service life, a number of further modifications and tests were carried out in order to improve its firepower and mobility, all with limited success. Regardless, it was the most numerous French tank during the German Invasion of 1940. After the defeat of France, the Germans captured many R35 tanks and put them in use in various roles, either unchanged or modified for specific purposes, such as ammunition carriers or anti-tank vehicles. The R35 was also exported to Poland, Romania, Turkey and Yugoslavia.

The R35 in France service. Source

R35 Unit Organization

Before the arrival of the R35 tanks, the Yugoslav Royal Army had at its disposal only one armored unit, simply called the Battalion of Fighting Vehicles (formed in 1936) equipped with FT and M-28 tanks. This unit is often mistakenly called the First Battalion. It is interesting to note that the Yugoslav Royal Army never adopted the term tank and instead referred to these vehicles simply as fighting vehicles (Боjна Кола).

On May 3rd, 1940, the Battalion of Fighting Vehicles was reformed into the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Fighting Vehicles. The 1st Battalion was equipped with the older tanks while the 2nd was supplied with all the acquired R35 tanks. These two Battalions consisted of three companies, each with three platoons. Beside a number of motorized vehicles (for ammunition and spare parts transportation), no infantry, artillery or anti-tank support elements were provided for these units. The 2nd Battalion was commanded by Danilo Zobenica. Prior to the war, the R35 was often used in larger military exercises together with the T-32 tankettes.

The R35 in Yugoslav service were painted in the French dark green and marked with four-digit numbers. Later in service, it appears that single and double-digit numbers were used for special purposes.

In some sources, mostly internet websites, it is wrongly indicated that the R35 tanks were given to the 1st Battalion. The reason for this wrong identification is the small painted sign (a burning grenade with a number 1) located on a small spare box on the vehicle’s left side. This is actually an original French sign that was simply never repainted.

Left, the painted sign with the number 1, right above the first return roller. The person in the picture is the young King Petar II. Right, the French painted sign which is misinterpreted as the mark of the 1st Battalion. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.info
Camouflaged R35 followed by infantry on a military exercise near Belgrade in early 1940. The Frech sign is still visible here. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The R35 in a Military Coup, March 1941

In March 1941, the government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was negotiating with the Germans to join the Axis powers. A group of pro-Western Yugoslav Air Force officers, under the leadership of General Dušan Simović, staged a coup on the 27th of March 1941 in order to prevent this happening. They were supported by the R35 tanks of the 2nd Battalion of Fighting Vehicles, which were deployed at key locations in the capital Belgrade. The coup was successful. The R35 did not fire a single round and were used more as a psychological weapon.

During this coup, some R35 tanks had political slogans painted on the turret, for example, ‘For King and Country’ (За Краља и Отаџбину). The success of the coup actually doomed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and, only a few weeks later, the Axis forces attacked.

One of the R35 tanks used during the coup on the 27th of March. This tank had a political slogan ‘For King and Country’ painted on the turret. Source
The same tank placed in front of the Army Ministry building. Source

During the April War

The new government formed following the coup anticipated a potential Axis attack and began preparing for mobilisation, which proved to be too slow and inefficient. Elements from the 1st Battalion of Fighting Vehicles, with older armored vehicles, were deployed defending larger cities such as Sarajevo and Zagreb. The 2nd Battalion of Fighting Vehicles was mainly positioned defending the capital Belgrade, with one company (which one precisely is not known, it could be either 1st or 3rd) positioned in the city of Skopje. The 2nd Battalion’s new commander at the outbreak of war was Major Danilo Zobenica.

A large group of Yugoslav R35 tanks prior the war. Source

When the Axis forces attacked the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on the morning of 6th April 1941 (known today as the April War), the 2nd Battalion was ordered to move from Belgrade to Northern Croatia in hopes of preventing any possible enemy advance. They reached the Croation city of Đakovo on the 9th of April. Once there, this unit was mostly used to pacify Croatian rebels which were trying to disarm the Army unit stationed there. On the 10th of April, the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska – NDH) was formed with the support of the Germans. This event deepened the already chaotic state of the Yugoslav Royal Army stationed in Croatia. It was already breaking down due to the desertion of Croat soldiers and rapid Axis advance. For this reason, some elements from the 2nd Battalion were quickly transferred via the Sava river to Bosnia.

On 13th April, parts of the 2nd Battalion reached Gračanica in order to support the 2nd Army stationed there. Once there, the high command of the 2nd Army ordered the formation of three motorized detachments equipped with 5 R35 tanks, 5 trucks and infantry support. Once formed, these units were to defend the area around Bosanska Posavina against Croatian rebels who were openly attacking the Yugoslav Royal Army. Due to general confusion and chaos, it appears that only one such unit with around 3 or 4 R35 tanks was formed. The unit was named the Fast Detachment of the Second Army and was commanded by Dragoljub Draža Mihailović (later commander of the Chetnik movement in Yugoslavia during the war). On the night of 13th/14th April, this unit began making its way from Gračanica to its designation area. On the road to Bosanska Posavina, they engaged Croat insurrectionist forces which were defeated. The Fast Detachment also engaged with smaller German forces with some success. This unit was lost in combat with the German forces near Sarajevo. The remnants of the 2nd Battalion stationed in Bosnia were destroyed or captured by the German 14th Panzer Division.

The 2nd Battalion company that was stationed in Macedonia was completely combat ready by the time of Axis attack. On the 6th of April, it was repositioned to Ježevo Polje in support of the Bregalnička Divizija. The following day, the Germans made an attack in this area but were repulsed. The same day, the 2nd Battalion company was ordered to withdraw toward Veles. Due to the heavy German offensive, all R35 tanks were lost or abandoned by their crews.

In Occupied Yugoslavia

During the period between April 1941 and May 1945, the R35 was used by all belligerent parties in occupied Yugoslavia, including the Germans, Croats and the two Yugoslav uprising groups, the Communist Partisans and Royal Chetniks, under different circumstances.

In German hands

After the April War, the Germans captured at least 78-80 Yugoslav armored fighting vehicles. These were to be transported out of occupied Yugoslavia by the end of 1941. Because of the emergence of the two resistance movements, these vehicles were instead distributed to German occupation units. At the end of June 1941, the R35 captured tanks were used to form the Panzer Kompanie zur besonderen Verwendung 12 (12th Tank Company for Special Purposes) reformed into Panzer Abteilung zb.V.12 in 1944. The R35 was actively used to combat the Yugoslav resistance movements almost until the end of the war. Over the years, the numbers of R35 tanks dwindled due to losses and mechanical breakdowns. For example, Panzer Abteilung zb.V.12 had, at the end of October 1944, only six R35 tanks, with only a single vehicle being fully operational.

The Germans did some minor modifications on the R35 (and on other French tanks), such as removing the larger domed shape cupolas on top and replacing them with simpler split-hatch doors. It is also not clear if all the German-operated R35 tanks in Yugoslavia were ex-Yugoslav or also ones captured in France in 1940.

This vehicle had the German Balkenkreuz painted on the turret and the rear hull but retained the original Yugoslav four digit number marking. It also had the German split-hatch turret doors. Source
A German R35 during the battle of Kraljevo, 1941. Source
The split-hatch doors, which replaced the domed shape cupola, are clearly seen here. This German R35 tank was lost in the area of Konjic in 1943 while fighting the Partisans. Source

In NDH

After the April War, the Independent State of Croatia made many requests to the Germans in order to receive captured Yugoslav armor to reinforce its newly formed army. While the Germans provided them with other captured military equipment, such as rifles and machine guns, they were initially reluctant to supply the Croats with captured tanks. Nevertheless, at least one R35 tank and a company of older FT eventually found their way into the hands of the NDH forces.

There is a possibility that the Germans provided the NDH with a small number of R35 tanks in 1944, but sources are not clear on this matter.

Beside the NDH’s Panzer I’s, to the far right, one R35 can barely be seen. While the NDH forces operated a few R35 tanks, their use was probably limited at best. Source: Pinterest

Back in Yugoslav Hands

During September and October 1941, the Partisans managed to capture several enemy tanks in Serbia. The first tank was captured on 8th September near the village of Vraževšnice. Two German tanks were captured a week later around the area of the cities of Kragujevac and Gornji Milanovac. Two more were found deserted near Gornji Milanovac on 16th October. The precise types that were captured are not clear, but at least one was a R35 tank.

Prior to its capture, the German crew sabotaged the guns on at least two of the tanks (the condition of the remaining captured tanks is not clear). For this reason, these tanks were instead armed with machine guns and hand grenades. At least two tanks were to be used in a joint Partisans and Chetniks attempt to liberate the city of Kraljevo, held by the elements of the German 717th Infantry Division. The German defenders were supported by tanks from Panzer Kompanie zu b.V.12, but no instances of tank to tank action were recorded. Even if these had occurred, the Yugoslav resistance’s tanks would be powerless to adequately fight enemy armor, being unable to use their sabotaged guns.

The tank crews consisted of both Partisan and Chetnik fighters. The R35 was commanded by Lieutenant Žarko Borušić. The attempt to liberate Kraljevo was made by the end of October 1941. The tank’s crew managed to somehow fool the German defenders and enter the city unopposed. The advancing infantry support was however stopped by the Germans and was unable to support the two tanks. The tank crews eventually managed to successfully escape the city.

This failed attempt to take the city, together with differing political views, would eventually lead to an open war between the two resistance movements. The Chetniks took possession of these tanks and killed the Partisan commander Srećko Nikolić (who was a commander of one of these tanks). The Chetniks then used two (of which one might have been an R35) tanks against Partisan forces that were holding the city of Čačak in November 1941. The Partisans managed to capture at least one tank (unknown type) from the Chetniks, possibly in late August 1941. This was then used and lost against the Germans during the latter’s attack on the territories of the Republic of Užice (part of Yugoslavia liberated by the Partisans in late 1941). The Partisans managed, in the later stages of the war, to capture even more R35 tanks. These were used against the German forces but also on parades in liberated cities, including in Kragujevac in May 1945.

After the War

A small number of R35 tanks (maybe only a few) did survive the war, but in what shape it is not known. Due to the R35 tank’s weak armor and main gun, the lack of spare parts and general obsolescence, the tanks were of limited use at best for the newly formed Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Some were possibly used as training vehicles, but it is unlikely that they were in use for a long time after the war and were probably scrapped. Unfortunately, no Yugoslav R35 tank seems to have survived to this day.

Conclusion

While the R35 represented the backbone of the Yugoslav Royal Army armored force prior to WWII, due to their small numbers, wrong tactical usage and crew inexperience, they proved no match for the well trained German Panzer units. They were used by nearly all major sides during the liberation war in Yugoslavia. While, ironically, the majority were used by the Germans, it was the Partisans who used them in many fights to liberate Yugoslavia from the Axis powers in 1945.



One of the R35 tanks used during the coup on the 27th of March. This tank had a political slogan ‘For King and Country’ painted on the turret. This illustration was produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.

Specifications

Dimensions 4.02 x 1.87 x 2.13 m (13.2 x 6.2 x 7 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 10.6 metric tons
Crew 2 (commander/gunner, driver)
Propulsion Renault V-4 gasoline 48 hp, p/w ratio 8.0 hp/t
Speed 20 km/h (12 mph)
Suspension Horizontal rubber cylinder springs
Maximum range 130 km (80 mi)
Armament Main: 37 mm (1.46 in) L/21 SA18
Secondary: Châtellerault or Reibel MAC31 7.5 mm (0.29 in) machine-gun
Maximum armor 43 mm (1.69 in)
Total Operated 54

Sources

D. Babac (2008), Elitni vidovi jugoslovenske vojske u Aprilskom ratu. Evoluta
B. Nadoveza and N. Đokić (2014), Odbrambena privreda Kraljevine Jugoslavije,
B. B.. Dimitrijević, (2011) Borna kola Jugoslovenske vojske 1918-1941, Institut za savremenu istoriju.
D. Nešić, (2008), Naoružanje Drugog Svetsko Rata-Francuska, Beograd
Bojan B. D. and Dragan S.(2011) Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945, Institut za savremenu istoriju.
D. Predoević (2008) Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj, Digital Point Tiskara
S. Zaloga (2014) French tanks of World War II (1), Osprey Publishing