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WW2 American Prototypes WW2 British Prototypes

The Bechhold Tank

Light tank – Single partial prototype and design. (1938-41)
United Kingdom – None built

Introduction

Many people interested in tanks have likely heard the name Walter Christie and are aware that he produced several prototype tanks during the period between WW1 and WW2. Whilst his vehicles had some good features, overall they were not a commercial success for Christie, who had amassed a lot of debt in developing and building them. The result was that some of his assets, his tank prototypes included, ended up being used to pay off his debts and his ‘high-speed tank’ was one of them.

Sold to pay off Christie’s debts, this vehicle ended up in the hands of a German-born American businessman, Siegfried Bechold. This new owner rebranded the tank, had some additional design changes made and then, at the start of WW2, tried to sell the ‘new’ design to both the Belgians and the British.

The Belgians needed tanks urgently but this design would come too late to help them. The British expressed interest as the light weight of the machine was suited to their need for a tank for airborne operations, and by 1940 the British Purchasing Commission was actively considering the vehicle for production. Nonetheless, the idea was over by 1941, when British attention switched to a vehicle with more armor and firepower than the ‘Bechold’ tank. Even so, this early design and the consideration of it adds to the story of how the British were trying to develop their own ideas for a new kind of mobile warfare and airborne operations.

The enigmatic Mr. Bechhold

The name Siegfried Bechhold means very little even to the most ardent tank enthusiast. However, just prior to WW2 and into its first years, Bechhold was one of the most prominent men involved in tank design and production in America, despite never having produced any tanks. This peculiar state of affairs takes some digging to get to the bottom of, as does the man himself, not helped by his name appearing variously as Bechhold, Bechold, and Buchhold.

Siegfried Bechhold appears to have been born in Bavaria, Germany in 1900, although a newspaper article from January 1941 puts his birthplace as Holland. This is likely one of those situations where people de-Germanized themselves to try and disguise their German ancestry, something which was a common occurrence at the time, especially with the switch from ‘Deutsch’ to ‘Dutch’ in terms of self-description. Another account of his early life (from April 1941) stated that he was born in Bavaria and lived in Germany until he was 11 – so maybe his family moved to Holland or maybe he was just hiding his background.

Bechhold recounted his story that, at the age of 16 (so ~1916), he was, like tens of thousands of other German boys, drafted into the German Army during World War One, although it is not known if he saw any active service or not. By 1922, with WW1 behind him but in a country ravaged by economic and social problems, he managed to make the transatlantic voyage to the United States, arriving in New York with just US$40 to his name.

His first jobs were very poorly paid but, by the late 1920’s, he was living as a tenant at 34 East 62nd Street between Madison and Park Avenues (this house was demolished in an explosion in July 2006). He had been learning English at night school and had managed to get a job as a salesman, which proved very successful for him. So successful was it, that this man, who had arrived in the USA just a few years before, could now afford to travel back and forth to Europe. He would later claim that he used these trips to pass on information about German rearmament efforts during the early 1930’s and that he believed that Germany was far ahead of other countries in weapons development, although this sounds more like his sales-speak for selling tanks than the serious recollections of an international spy.

What is known though is that during this time, he, like many others, saw the tanks of Walter Christie. These were very well covered in the newspapers and newsreels of the age with Christie’s penchant for publicity stunts. Seeing a potential business opportunity, Bechhold was interested in these tanks which were significantly faster than other tanks of the age, and in many ways the most advanced tanks in the USA at the time.

Bechhold later reported that he was encouraged in his interests by Congressman Ross Collins of Mississippi, although how these two men knew each other is unknown. It was, according to Bechhold, Collins who encouraged him to produce tanks in the United States but Bechhold was not a technical man nor an engineer despite being Vice President of the Bethlehem Engineering Export Corporation of Wall Street, New York. He was skilled in salesmanship and finance. He was, however, despite his lack of engineering skills, to be credited in the US press as coming up with the idea of putting lightweight aircraft engines into tanks in place of ordinary diesel or petrol engines, although this too sounds more like the pitch of a salesman, as Christie had already done this years beforehand.

As an aside to his tank work and to give a flavour of the way in which Bechold was trying to avoid being labelled as anything other than as a patriot, he embarked on a vigorous self-justification campaign in the media, making sure no one was in any doubt as to his loyalties. As a result, in June 1941, it was reported that Bechhold, a naturalized citizen and “intense” patriot, had refused to sell his tanks to the Russians at the time of the War against Finland. Furthermore, it was claimed that, in the new war against Hitler, he would only sell them when the Russians went to war with Hitler, even though there seems to be no evidence whatsoever for this claim.

The Tank Company

By the end of the 1930’s, Bechhold had his opportunity. Walter Christie, a man of undoubted technical gifts, was running short of investors who wanted to keep losing money on his tanks. One vehicle of his, a “high-speed tank”, had to be handed over to the partners of the Hempsted Welding Company of New York, William and Alfred Christ, as a lien against unpaid debts owed to them by Christie. Exactly which of Christie’s vehicles this was in unclear but as the M.1938 was later presented by a Mr. Bigley with some involvement from Christie suggests that Bechhold got hold of the M.1937 high speed tank from Christie as the basis of his design. However, whilst exactly which vehicle may not be known, Christie’s creditors were to be appeased with a tank available for purchase to pay his debts.

Bechhold had, through Bethlehem Engineering Co. been engaged in a commercial contract with Christie which started on 9th August 1938 whereby Bechhold and his company were granted exclusive rights to sell and manufacture the design from Christie for the princely sum of US$5,000 (just over US$91,000 in 2020 values). The idea of the partnership was simple. For this initial outlay of cash to Christie, Bethem Engineering would take the full blueprints of the design, market them globally and grant manufacturing licences for US$50,000 to each national licensee. This US$50,000 (US$915,000 in 2020 values) would be split 50:50 between Bethlehem Engineering and Christie for which the licence got not only the blueprints but also a master mechanic or draughtsman from Christie. This agreement simply fell apart not least in part to how appallingly badly written and complicated it was. In the words of the New York Second Circuit of Appeals in July 1939 ruling on whether to grant an injunction against Christie for breach of his contract:

“This contract is so obscure, and, strictly taken, so incoherent, that nobody can be sure of its meaning, but so far as we can spell it out, this is what it was. The defendants made the plaintiff its exclusive agent to sell licenses to prospective manufacturers of their tank in foreign countries — perhaps also in this country as well, though apparently it was not included. The plaintiff was not free to sell such licenses generally, but only for those countries where the parties thought it “practical” to do so. The minimum license fee was to be $50,000, but the plaintiff was to try to get more, and the parties were to discuss the amount in advance: probably this implied that they should agree upon it.”
105.F.2d 933 (2nd Cir. 1939)

With the case between them ending in confused acrimony, Christie and Bethlehem Engineering’s relationship was over. Christie had won that case due not least in part to how confusing the agreement was between them over rights and whilst he had retained his rights over his design he was also financially crippled.
Bechhold too had moved on and was no longer involved with the Bethlehem Engineering Expert Company and, instead, on 25th July 1939 (just 2 weeks after the ruling), formed the Armored Tank Corporation (A.T.C.), incorporated in New York. Initially, this company had just 100 shares of stock (30 Class A, and 70 Class B) at a value of US$50 each (Total nominal value US$5,000).

The purpose of the company was to acquire the Walter Christie high-speed tank from William and Alfred Christ. On 31st July 1939, this tank was purchased for an undisclosed sum along with 34 shares (Value US$1,700) in the new company (6 more were given to the attorney for their legal services). The Armored Tank Corporation (A.T.C.) of New York was now in possession of the Christie High-Speed Tank, the rights over which had fractured the relationship between Christie and Bethlehem Engineering. Bechhold now had the vehicle and also the more difficult task of making money from it.

Belgians

Within a few months of formation of the company and the purchase of this High-Speed tank, Bechhold was recruiting a draughtsman. Between December 1939 and January 1940, A.T.C.’s draughtsman prepared blueprints and drawings of this Christie tank with some modifications. During this time, a license agreement for the production of this modified Christie high-speed tank was acquired in Belgium. The Belgium firm, Ateliers de Construction de Familleureux, paid an advance royalty of US$10,000 for this license. Whatever plans there were in Belgium for this vehicle though are unknown, as the nation was overrun by the Germans in May 1940, with no Christie tanks produced.

Super Tanks

By the end of 1940, the first glimpse of what A.T.C. was working on can be seen. In November-December that year, it was advertising ‘Super-Tanks’ in the US Army Ordnance Magazine as being “built in all weights” by the Armored Tank Corporation at 30 Church Street, New York. This was formerly the location of numerous businesses such as the National Manufacturing Company, American Locomotive Sales Corporation, and the New York Railway Club (close to the site of the World Trade Center Complex today and now the location of the Century 21 Department Store). The same advert appeared that same month as being constructed by the Pressed Steel Car Co. as well.

Image of a Bechhold Tank
Image of a Bechhold Tank dated 1940, published November/December 1940. Source: Army Ordnance Magazine

Although the tank was never built as shown, there is some information available from contemporary press reports too. Also, bearing in mind that the vehicle was based on the Christie design (purchased in 1939), and that it was advertised as being “Built in all weights”, a brief analysis of the vehicle shown is possible.

Advert for Bechold’s Armored Tank Corporation of New York.
Advert for Bechold’s Armored Tank Corporation of New York. Source: Army Ordnance Magazine

In December 1940, Bechhold was reported to have been producing ‘Medium Tanks’ for the British and had also submitted a design for an airborne tank. This tank was at the time being reported in the press as weighing 10 tons (9.1 tonnes), 14 ½ feet (4.42 m) long, fitted with armor one-inch (25 mm) thick with a single 37 mm gun and a machine gun. Also noted was that it would carry two sub-machine guns, suggesting a crew of just 2 or 3. A final note is that it was designed to be carried under “a Douglas plane”.

This description is immediately reminiscent of the Christie promotional idea of an underslung high-speed tank from 1936. In that artwork, a 3-wheel Christie turretless high-speed tank was pictured being carried under an Air Corps bomber.

The idea for the rapid deployment of tanks by aircraft
The idea for the rapid deployment of tanks by aircraft appeared in Christie designs as early as 1936. Source: Popular Mechanics. May 1936.

An idea of quite how a system for carrying a tank in this manner under a plane would work can be found in a May 1941 Patent. This was filed by Alfred Anderson, assignor to the Armored Tank Corporation for a ‘Hook-on-and-Release-Mechanism for Fighting Tanks’. This invention describes an invention for attaching tanks to aircraft, specifically slung below the plane, and for dropping the tank when in flight. This is a different system to the one from Christie – that one used a pair of scissor arms to grab and retract the tank.

Instead, four upside-down triangular fittings would be attached on the underside of the fuselage of the aircraft. Each held a hydraulically controlled actuator with a large stud pushed out on a spring. When hydraulic pressure was applied, this spring would compress withdrawing the stud back inside the actuator. This would release the tank, as these four studs were attached via holes into the body of the tank. These would not be disengaged simultaneously, but in pairs. The rear pair would disengage first, allowing the bottom of the tank to hang down as the carrying plane swooped in suicidally low over the ground. At a suitable point, the front studs would also then be disengaged releasing the front of the tank. The back end of the tank was then supposed to hit the ground first from a lower height, with the front end following. This method was intended to overcome the turning effect on the vehicle. The dangers to the vehicle crew and to the aircraft performing this maneuver cannot be overstated; this was really a system designed to get the plane and its tank shot down. Even if it did work and the tank was deposited safely to the ground, one wonders how long it would take the crew to become operational after such an experience.

Hook on and Release Mechanism for a Fighting Tank.
Hook on and Release Mechanism for a Fighting Tank. US Patent US2310887 of 1941
Christie M-1950
A depiction of the gantry arrangement on top of what is supposed to be the ‘Christie M-1950’ (albeit with a different number of road wheels). The gantry could not only attach a tank, but also raise it within the fuselage of the aircraft. Source: Steel Steeds Christie

The vehicle shown in that 1936 promotion art for Christie is different from the vehicle in the 1940 ATC advert though. For sure, ATC got a Christie High-Speed Tank but its vehicle is much closer to a vehicle the size of the M3 Stuart or even the M1 Combat Car. What can be seen from the advertising image is that it was a small tank with a distinctive rounded back end to the hull running on four closely-spaced Christie type wheels (and presumably Christie spring suspension too). No track guards or mud guards at all are shown. The track itself is very similar to the flat plate track of the Christie tanks.

The nose lacks any indication of the pointedness of the earlier Christie High-Speed tanks but is uniformly rounded leading to a long glacis sloping up to a slightly inclined driver’s plate. Where the glacis meets the driver’s plate, there are two structures that appear to be mounts for fixed hull machine guns. In 1940, it should have been obvious that fixed, forward-firing machine guns were utterly useless but it was an easy way to add what was thought of as additional firepower to a design and many tanks subsequent and independent of this one retained this feature, including the M3 Grant, M4 Sherman, and Canadian Ram.

The driver’s plate featured two rectangular hatches, each with a vision slit. Out of the front of the left hand hatch was what appears to be a heavy machine gun. From the position of the hatches and hull weapons, it would appear to have had a driver mounted on the right and hull machine gunner on the left. A third man, the commander, would most likely occupy the turret. The turret itself, as drawn, is very unusual, looking like an overturned cooking pot. On the roof was a full size (it occupies the entire roof) hatch in two parts, each opening sideways. A series of slits were placed around the exterior of the turret and at least two machine guns, one forwards and one to the left. In total, the firepower for this vehicle as drawn was 4 machine guns and one heavy machine gun.

Presumably, the part about being built in ‘all weights’ was to mean that different options in terms of fittings, armor, and weapons were potentially on offer. Certainly, the specifications and look of the vehicle were very up to date given the parlous state of US tank development at the time. The T4 medium tank, for example, from 1935/1936, was a very promising design but was 13.5 tons and capable of just 35 mph with 3 machine guns. The Bechhold tank was, at least on paper, better armed, better armored, smaller (about 50 cm shorter), and faster. No surprise then that it was an interesting prospect for investors interested in lucrative future army orders.

The 13.5 ton Medium Tank T4
The 13.5-ton Medium Tank T4 – at 13.5 tons (12.2 tonnes) this tank was armed only with machine guns and was not adopted. Source: Wiki

Investment

The potential of the A.T.C. tanks from Bechhold’s company had indeed gained attention. In June 1940, a British Purchasing Commission had arrived in the USA to look at the possibility of producing and purchasing tanks for the war effort. Great Britain had, of course, been at war since September 1939, and June 1940 was just after the evacuation of Dunkirk, a time when a lot of British armor had already been lost on the continent with the fall of France. Great Britain and its Empire now stood resolute against the Axis of Germany and Italy but it desperately needed tanks and arms to fight the war.

The same month, Bechhold managed to interest John MacEnulty, the President of the Pressed Steel Car Company, in tank production and a five-year contract (renewable for up to 2 years) was signed on 23rd July 1940. Under the terms of this contract, Pressed Steel would gain exclusive rights to the production of tanks from A.T.C. (notwithstanding that a non-exclusive Belgian production license had already been signed). Under the terms of the contract, Pressed Steel would pay A.T.C. a royalty of $750 for each vehicle of A.T.C.’s design ordered for production by the US or Foreign Governments at Pressed Steel. A.T.C. was to provide plans, drawings, technical advice and, if required, a skilled engineer to assist in production.

 John F. MacEnulty, President of Pressed Steel Car Company
John F. MacEnulty, President of Pressed Steel Car Company from 1937. Source: Railway Engineering and Maintenance Vol.34

On 25th October 1940. Pressed Steel entered into an agreement with the British Purchasing Commission for the production and delivery of 501 M3 Medium tanks. These were not tanks designed by A.T.C. but Bechhold did assist in the completion of the contract arrangement and the British sent an advance of US$500,000 to Pressed Steel. The next month, November 1940, Pressed Steel paid A.T.C. US$75,000 under the terms of the July 1940 contract with US$300,000 remaining to be paid.

It is not clear though why Pressed Steel paid this commission to A.T.C. as the vehicles being produced were Grant tanks and not the Christie-based tank design from A.T.C. Despite the huge sum paid to ATC, it was in trouble. Bechhold had finagled matters so that after October 1940, only he held all of the Class A shares in the company, and therefore had exclusive voting rights for A.T.C. He had also increased the number of shares available from 100 to 10,000 (3000 Class A and 7000 Class B) with a reduced value of just US$1 each.

British Interest

The desperate need for tanks meant that the British were rapidly building their own in industries repurposed from civilian work to war work, but they were also looking for American production too, as this would not be affected by the manpower shortage in Britain or by German bombing. As well as the order for the M3 tanks from Pressed Steel, various other options were being considered and the work of the Purchasing Commission continued into 1941.

One particular type of vehicle that the British were interested in was an airborne tank,namely a tank which could accompany parachute or glider-borne troops. The lightweight and compact Bechhold tank was obviously of specific interest. On 27th February 1941, on behalf of the British committee in charge of evaluating tank designs, a telegram was sent to the Consul General in New York regarding the tank situation. The British were clear on what they needed from an airborne tank:

3 man crew
37 mm gun and .30 calibre Browning in a 360 degree rotating turret (quite why a 37 mm gun was specified in preference to the 2 pounder which was already an excellent gun and fielded on the A.17 Tetrarch is unknown but it is probably to do with the 37 mm being easier to produce in the USA)
Space for a wireless
Maximum Speed 40 mph (64 km/h)
Radius of Action 200 miles (320 km)
Armor basis ‘preferably’ 40-50 mm on the front and turret. 30 mm thick sides
Weight about 9 tons (9.1 tonnes) (anything under 9 tons was felt to lack the fighting qualities required) (for reference: the A.17 Tetrarch weighed just 7.6 tonnes)
“Not very interested in dropping Tank from a height of two feet”

In other words, the idea of dropping the tank from a plane was not wanted at all. Either it had to be landed directly (some various schemes for adding wings to tanks were considered), or it had to be unloaded from an aircraft. Dropping it from underneath a plane was, quite rightly, seen as a terrible idea. These requirements exceeded those of the Bechhold tank from A.T.C. That vehicle lacked the armor and firepower required and was inferior to the available A.17 Tetrarch when what was wanted by the British was basically a better armored version of the Tetrarch. The British were also anxious to get an airborne tank as soon as possible and were hoping for interest from the USA in manufacturing the vehicle. The Bechhold tank was, therefore, not suitable for their needs as it was noted that a pilot model had not yet been built.

By the end of March 1941, British plans for “the Bechold [sic: Bechhold] Project” were over. Having analyzed the tank, the British reported that: “The tank will not have the essential fighting qualities for the operations in view” and would also divert production from heavy bombers. The matter was left in the hands of American authorities to pursue and oversee its development. In its place came consideration of a 9-ton (9.1 tonnes) tank to be carried by towed glider. A final comment on the matter, from 30th April 1941, was that it had become clear to the British that the “American War Department feel they have no capacity to devote to the development of air-borne tanks”. As the decision was that Bechhold’s tanks should be overseen in America rather than from Britain it was decided that no action be taken on the Bechhold tanks.

Sold Off

The British had not been convinced by Bechhold’s salesmanship. They had, after all, already been down the Christie suspension vehicle route with the purchase of a Christie M.1931 which became the A.13E1 in 1936/7 and they had extensive experience with light Cruiser type tanks already. They also had plenty of small light tank designs including the A.17 Tetrarch. They had been clear on what they wanted but Bechhold was either unable or unwilling to comply, or simply could not produce a prototype, which was required before a decision could be taken. With the British unconvinced and an already lucrative deal with Pressed Steel in place, Bechhold had other plans.

Shenanigans and Taxes

In February 1941, A.T.C. sold its original Christie tank for just US$3,500, (Bechhold had bought it for US$5,000 in 1939) and on 18th August that year, A.T.C. incorporated as a corporation in Delaware to avoid payment of New York franchise taxes. This was completed on 20th August and the shares changed to just 100 Class A and 9,900 Class B shares with Bechhold, of course, retaining all the Class A shares and the voting rights that went with them (he also held 6,400 of the Class B shares too). Between 2nd and 4th September 1941, A.T.C. signed over all assets and the July 1940 contract (with Pressed Steel) to a newly incorporated body in Delaware, meaning the New York ATC effectively disappeared, although it was not formally dissolved until 11th September 1941. Mr. MacEnulty of Pressed Steel wrote to Bechhold on 4th September 1941 informing him that the July 1940 contract was now canceled due to alleged misrepresentations by Bechhold and a legal fight ensued.

Bechhold was insistent that he was owed money from Pressed Steel and, despite being offered US$300,000 (the remaining balance from the British Purchasing Commission contract), Bechhold refused due to the tax liability involved. His counter-offer was US$1.5m and this was immediately rejected. Instead, Pressed Steel suggested it should buy all of the remaining shares of ATC for US$50 per share (10,000 shares at US$50 would mean a US$500,000 payday). This would mean the end of Delaware A.T.C, which would have to surrender all its designs including an “aero” (airborne) tank concept, a full size model of the hook and release mechanism for releasing a tank from an airplane, designs of various other tanks and flamethrowers, and cash. This offer was considered and changed on 3rd October 1941 with a value of US$37.50 per share (US$375,000), but this would be only the existing July 1940 contract, no other plans or designs. This was agreed to by the voting members of Delaware A.T.C., which was just Bechhold, who of course approved of this arrangement.

In order to facilitate this transaction, the Delaware incorporated A.T.C. was changed from any mention or use of Armored Tank Corporation to the ‘Illinois Tank Corporation’ (I.T.C.) on 14th October 1941. On this day, just as Armored Tank Corporation (Delaware) was bought out by Pressed Steel and changed to Illinois Tank Corporation, Bechhold started a new company in Delaware. He called this new company the ‘Armored Tank Company’ once more receiving all of the assets from the original A.T.C., other than the contract, which had now gone to I.T.C. The next day, the new A.T.C. handed over all of its shares to I.T.C. which was then distributed to the stockholders, which also included Bechhold.

From these corporate shenanigans, Bechhold netted himself a cool 100 Class A shares (100% of the voting power), and 6,400 Class B shares valued at US$243,750 in total. This 15th October 1941 payment of US$375,000 (tax year 1941-1942) was to have serious consequences for Bechhold and his creative accounting.

Following this 15th October takeover though, the original July 1940 contract was finished. Bechhold probably felt he had made enough money and the entire business of the Illinois Tank Company was wound up suggesting that what assets in terms of tank designs it might have had leftover had little to no value. I.T.C. formally dissolved on 22nd November 1941.

Certainty

The substantial pay-off which Bechhold had received was classed as personal income. He, and the other stakeholders, were found to be personally liable for taxes of this income. If there is one certainty greater than death and taxes, then it is taxation in time of war. Taken to court for non-payment of taxes, Armored Tank Corporation admitted an error in its tax liabilities and was assessed to be liable for the sum of US$390,144.91 (including US$78,028.98 in tax penalties on top of its original 80% tax liability of US$312,115.93).

This was not the end of it either, for the individual shareholders of the Armored Tank Corporation/Illinois Tank Corporation were also found personally liable for back taxes and penalties. Stockholders Philip Steckler and Hamilton Allen were found liable for US$33,750, and US$22,500 respectively, and Max and Siegfried Bechhold were found liable for US$243,750 and US$45,000 respectively. A massive combined penalty of US$735,144.91 (over US$12.8m in 2019 dollars) for not paying taxes on that US$375,000 (US$6.5m in 2019 dollars) income demonstrated the danger of trying to dodge taxes in wartime.

Accessories

A.T.C. did not just produce a tank design. One of the more unusual things it designed and produced was a trailer for vehicles. This design appears in a letter dated 19th May 1942 from the Office of the Chief of Ordnance to the Commanding General of Aberdeen Proving Grounds (A.P.G.). Confusingly though, the product in question was produced by the ‘Armored Tank Corporation’ of Jersey City, New Jersey, suggesting that Bechhold kept working on designs incorporated in a different state. It is unlikely to be a mistake as A.T.C. (NY) had ended in September 1941 and I.T.C. (DE) ended November 1941. It is undoubtedly the same firm reborn, however, as the person providing information to A.P.G. on behalf of A.T.C. (NJ) was none other than ’Mr. Bechhold’ himself.

Rota-Trailer Model 4
A.T.C.(NJ) Rota-Trailer Model 4 during testing at A.P.G., Summer 1941, hitched to the rear of a half-track. The tests did not go well. Source: The_Chieftain – WoT forum

The proposal to the military was not this time a tank, but a trailer capable of being used for hauling supplies, equipment, or fuel. According to Mr. Bechhold, the British were interested in this trailer and the report recommended that APG experiment with it over a 250 mile (402 km) course to assess its viability, showing it off to the army and British representatives respectively.

This trailer was known as the ‘ROTA-TRAILER’ and the name stenciled on the side during trials stated this was the ‘Model 4’, suggesting the other 3 models or designs were less well refined. This Model 4 trailer consisted of two large hollow wheels fitted with a 40 inch (101.6cm) rubber tire 5 inches (12.7cm) wide. The wheels were unsprung but could hold up to 60 imperial gallons (272.8 liters) of fuel, either petrol or diesel, and were covered in rubber to provide a ‘self-sealing’ effect if the wheel hub were punctured by ammunition up to .50 caliber. Between the two wheels was a large rectangular cargo compartment made from ⅛” thick (3.175 mm) thick welded steel. This large space inside could be fitted with an ammunition rack for tank or artillery shells (34 rounds of 75 mm or 108 rounds of 37 mm), small arms ammunition boxes, ration boxes, water or fuel cans, or other items that were required. A second, smaller compartment below this was specifically designed to hold four boxes of .30 ammunition.

Top-down view of the Rota-Trailer Model 4
Top-down view of the Rota-Trailer Model 4 from A.T.C. (NJ) with top cover open. It contained 3 specimen shells in a rack, two 5-US gallon (18.9 liter) ‘flimsies’ and three boxes of rations. Source: The_Chieftain – WoT forum

At the back of the trailer lay a third compartment, smaller than the first, and which contained a hand-operated fuel pump and supply hose long enough to feed the towing vehicle. Below this compartment lay a fourth compartment (just like the one at the front) which held stowage space for tools.

A.T.C.(NJ) Rota-Trailer Model 4
A.T.C.(NJ) Rota-Trailer Model 4 pictured during testing at A.P.G. Summer 1941. Source: The_Chieftain – WoT forum

Overall, the trailer was very complex containing many bespoke parts that made for complicated maintenance. The doors to access the items inside were fitted with wing nuts (butterfly nuts) but were overly laborious to unscrew to access the contents. This is something that could easily have been rectified in a production model.

Rear view of the Rota-Trailer Model 4
Rearview of the Rota-Trailer Model 4 from A.T.C. (NJ) with hand pump (top) and toolbox (bottom) open for inspection. Between the two is a towing hook for additional trailers. The narrow tires and very wide wheel hubs are apparent in this image. Source: The_Chieftain – WoT forum

The Rota-Trailer not only had these internal compartments for stowage but also the ability to have a multitude of items carried on top. A special frame was fitted which held three 5-US gallon (18.9 liter) oil cans, and various tie-downs allowed other accessories such as nets or tarpaulins or other stores to be lashed to the top of the trailer.

Testing

Despite looking good on paper, capable of extending the fighting range of a tank, the trailer had serious problems. It was tested by an M4 Sherman and two different half-tracks over a 26 mile (42 km) cross country course and 250 miles (400 km) of gravel roads and, whilst it was on a flat surface, like a road, it worked well with little bouncing. The trailer was heavy too: each wheel weighed 400 lbs (180 kg) empty and 800 lbs (360 kg) when full in addition to the weight of the other material carried. The weight of the trailer placed additional strain on the drivetrain of the towing vehicle and, during rough travel off-road, the stress and strain on the trailer risked serious damage. On top of this, the trailer reduced the maximum speed of the vehicle towing it because the instability of the load caused by the sloshing liquid in the wheels threatened to result in sideways skids at high speeds.

Even as it was, the semi-rough terrain traversed ended up with all of the cans of water inside or on top of the trailer becoming deformed and leaky but the trailer did at least provide self-floatation in mud due to the width of the fuel cells. Another downside was that the lower front compartment, just 8.75 inches (222 mm) from the ground had a tendency to become filled with mud which was forced into it.

A final problem with the trailer was that it made reversing more difficult. During testing with an M4, the trailer skewed to one side and the stress caused damage to the towing arm and the tank tracks rubbing against the trailer body.

Model 4 from A.T.C. (NJ) after testing, the twisted tow arm
View of the Rota-Trailer Model 4 from A.T.C. (NJ) after testing, the twisted tow arm and torn section of the front having been caused by contacting the tracks of the tank. Source: The_Chieftain – WoT forum

Overall, the tests of this A.T.C. product were a failure and the vehicle was not recommended for use. Its main faults were:
Difficult to reverse
Additional strain on the drivetrain of the towing vehicle
Reduces maximum possible speed of the towing vehicle
Too heavy to move easily by hand
Too little ground clearance
No suspension
Steel body is not resistant to small arms fire

None of these faults were to stop further ideas, designs, and experimentation with trailers for hauling fuel or stores by tanks, but the work from A.T.C. (NJ) on this matter was effectively dead. No more is known of A.T.C. after this time; possibly Bechhold’s resources had simply run out and this venture failed, although it is noteworthy that on 1st February 1943, despite the failings of the Rotatrailer, the British still ordered 600 of them anyway, although how many were finished or delivered is less clear.

In the Army

Siegfried Bechhold, aged 42, in October 1942 joined his second Army. His first was a German one in WW1, his second, an American one in WW2. He served as a private being sent to Camp Lee in Virginia. He is not believed to have been sent overseas.

Re-born once more?

The back end of the hull of the Bechhold Tank seen in the November/December 1940 advert is very similar to the vehicle shown to the US Army Ordnance Department in May 1942 known as the Bigley Gun Motor Carriage suggesting a possible link to that vehicle. Was, in fact, the Bigley GMC the M.1938 High-Speed tank from Christie, bought and modified by A.T.C. and then sold off, redeveloped and re-submitted by another firm? Or is it in fact the other Christie tank, the M.1937 sold off by his creditors to Mr. Becchold. On the balance of the evidence, the former case appears to be correct.

Bigley GMC seen in May 1942
Bigley GMC seen in May 1942. Source: US Army Ordnance

By the end of WW2, Bechhold had left the field of tanks and the complications of military work. By 1948, he was living in Florida where he headed the Ribbonwriter Corporation of America, selling parts for typewriters. Siegfried Bechhold died in California in 1956.

A rendition of Bechhold’s tank, as shown in the ad published in the November/December 1940 issue of the Army Ordnance Magazine. Illustration by Adrielcz, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Sources

Army Ordnance. (November-December 1940). Super Tanks. Vol. XXI.
The Camden News. (27th June 1941). Russians now seek to buy tank designs refused them during Finnish War. Arkansas, USA
Cypher Telegram. (8th March 1941). No.1456 Supply to the Consul General in New York. For Dewar from Burton T-59.
Gray, C. (16th July 2006). A Notable Block with a Hole in its Heart. New York Times, New York, USA
Second Circuit of Appeals. (10th July 1939). Bethlehem Engineering Export Company v Christie 105.F.2d 933 (2d Cir. 1939)
Indianapolis Star. (26th January 1941). U.S. Help Brings Joy to Greeks. Indianapolis, USA
The Jewish Floridian. (24th December 1948). New Typewriter Device Produced by Dania Firm.
Keough, F. (November 1918). Contents. American Industries: The Manufacturers’ Magazine. Vol. XIX, No.4.
Nielsen, K. (2012). Pressed Steel!. Author House Publishing
Ogden Standard Examiner. (1st June 1941). Flying Tanks. Utah, USA
Pearson, D., Back, R. (9th August 1941). The Washington Merry Go-Round. Nevada State Journal.
Popular Mechanics. (May 1936). Fast-Tank and Plane Latest War Machine.
Pinedale Roundup. (29th October 1942). No Cellophane Commission. Wyoming, USA
Railway Age. (2nd December 1939). Meetings and Conventions. Railway Age, Vol.107, No.23.
Railway Engineering and Maintenance. (January 1938). Supply Trade News.
San Bernadino Sun. (13th April 1941). Breaking Nazi Morale. Volume 46, 1941.
San Francisco Examiner. (8th February 1956). Siegfried Bechhold dies in Santa Rosa Hospital. San Francisco, USA
Strausbaugh, J. (2018). Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers during World War II. Twelve Publishing.
United States. (1949). Reports of the Tax Court of the United States, Volume 11. US Government Printing Office
Office of the Chief of Ordnance, Bigley Tank, OCE, Washington D.C., USA
United States Tax Court. (20th October 1948). Armored Tank Corporation v. Commissioner. Docket No. 9786, 9769, 9770, 9771, 9772, 11916, 1919, 11920, 11927
US Patent US2310887(A). Hook-on-and-release mechanism for fighting tanks. Filed 6th May 1941. Granted 9th February 1943.
Weir J. D.G. Mech. E. (24th March 1941). Memo to Sir James Lithgow.
Weir J. D.G. Mech. E. (24th March 1941). Memo to Air Marshall Dawson.
Weir, J. D.G. Mech. E. (30th April 1941). Memo to A.R. 2 War Office via DAFV.
Wrynn, C. Major. (1st February 1943). Rota Trailers – Memo.. 1/Rel/ Equip Armd/1
The Chieftain’s Hatch 28th March 2014. Trailer, Ammunition and Fuel Part 1. 
Christie, J. (1985). Steel Steeds Christie. Sunflower University Press, Kansas, USA

3 replies on “The Bechhold Tank”

Very interesting history, I had never heard of any of this before! Glad you’re still working on the weird, wild and obscure TE!

Not to be picky but under “British Interest”, the article says, “Room for a wireless”, is this a typo or is there supposed to be another word there?

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