Saturday, 1 October 2016

Toldi: The Hungarian Light Knight

Sometimes fairly good designs of military hardware don't reach their true potential because they appeared in the wrong time or in the wrong place. Light tanks, widely in use on all theaters of WWII, disappeared rather quickly from the Eastern Front, freeing up the space for their heavier brothers. The Hungarian Toldi tank, the first mass produced tank for the country, was one of them.
Illegal Precursor to Hungarian Tank Design

The consequences of the First World War were disastrous for Hungary. The Treaty of Trianon of 1920 which cost Hungary 72% of its territory, 64% of its population, and its access to the sea was seen as a national disgrace. The state of mourning declared after the treaty was signed was one of the longest in world history: state flags remained at half mast until 1938 when Hungary returned some of its lost territory after the First Vienna Award.  Some schoolchildren begin the day with singing the national anthem, while Hungarian students began with reading a prayer for the reunification of their country.

Considering the treaty unfair, Hungarians tried to get around it, at least in the military sense. Since the army was limited to 35,000 men and forbidden from having armoured vehicles ("production or import to Hungary of armoured cars, tanks, or any analogous vehicles suitable for use in warfare are forbidden"), Hungary had no tanks. In 1920, Hungary bought 14 light LK.II tanks from its fellow in suffering, Germany, who was also barred from having tanks. Entente representatives discovered this purchase and attempted to confiscate them, but the tanks were disassembled and well hidden.

In 1928, Hungary was able to buy two tankettes from Britain, but the first real breakthrough happened thanks to improving relations with a victorious country, Italy. In 1927, the two countries signed a treaty on "Friendship, Cooperation, and Exchange", and Italy began shipments of arms to Hungary. This was already a violation of the Treaty of Trianon, as importing weapons into Hungary was forbidden by Article V, and could only be produced domestically. The tank embargo was broken in 1931: Hungary bought five Fiat 3000Bs. 150 Italian CV 3/33 and CV 3/35 tankettes were shipped to Hungary between 1934 and 1936.

Call of the Varangian

Meanwhile, Europe was steadily moving towards another large war. In 1938, Hungary openly rejected the Treaty of Trianon, declaring a modernization program for its armed forces. Resources were reserved for the creation of a fully fledged armoured force.

Since Hungary possessed a developed industry, it was decided to produce tanks domestically. The inventor Nicholas Straussler offered his new V-4 tank in 1937. The light convertible drive tank had an original suspension and was a further development of the V-3, which was developed in 1934-35 and received some interest from Japan and Britain.

Hungarian light convertible drive V-4 tank.

In 1937, Hungary announced the comparative trials of three light tanks: the V-4, a PzI Ausf. A bought in 1934, and the Swedish Landsverk L-60 which arrived in March. The V-4, with its 40 mm gun (against a 20 mm gun on the "Swede" and machinegun on the "German") as well as a good reputation with the military regarding its performance had decent chances for victory.

Swedish L-60 tank.

However, the "Swede" won in the competition. The L-60 was simpler, and yet sufficiently progressive. Its chassis was the first to have an individual torsion bar suspension, the front armour was sloped, and the L-60 design had more room for further modernization. Straussler moved to Britain and worked with the Allies during WWII. His input into the victory over the Axis includes the Duplex Drive amphibious system used by American, British, and Canadian forces during the Normandy landings.

The L-60 was taken as the basis for the first mass produced tank. The licensed version of the Swedish tank was named "Toldi" after the medieval hero Miklós Toldi, an analogue to a Western knight. The commission that performed comparative trials recommended several changes to the tank's design. Mostly the suspension and hull were left the same, but the drive sprocket changed somewhat. Slight changes were also made to the turret, but the armament was changed completely.

The Swedish tank used the 20 mm Madsen gun. This gun was satisfactory to the Hungarians, but the manufacturer demanded too much money for a license. In addition, the Danuvia factory in Budapest was not ready to produce it on short notice.

Solothurn S18-100 20 mm heavy semiautomatic anti-tank rifle. Practical rate of fire: 15-20 RPM, fed by 5 (used in the Toldi tank) or 10 round magazines. Range: 1500 meters. Penetration at 90 degrees: 35 mm at 100 meters, 27 mm at 300 meters.

Hungarian designers proposed either the 25 mm Bofors autocannon (also Swedish) or the domestic Gebauer gun. 37 and 40 mm guns were discussed, but they would require significant reworking of the turret. In the end, the tank was armed with a 20 mm anti-tank rifle designed by the Swiss Solothurn company, produced in Hungary under license. Technically the rifle was resigned by Rheinmetall, but since the Treaty of Versailles tied Germany's hands, the forbidden weapon was produced at a Swiss subsidiary. The Solothurn rifle was also used by the Finnish army during the Winter War. 

The ammunition racks of the Toldi held 208 anti-tank rifle rounds and 2400 rounds in belts for the 8 mm machinegun. Another AA machinegun could be mounted on the turret on a special mount. Optics for observation devices and sights was shipped from Germany.

The 8.5 ton Toldi was equipped with a German 155 hp gasoline Busing-NAG engine The five-gear planetary gearbox gave the tank a decent speed of 50 kph. The 253 Liter capacity of its fuel tanks was enough to travel 220 km on a highway.

Hungarian light 38.M "Toldi I" tank from the 2nd Hungarian Tank Division crossing a river in Poland.

The three man crew worked in sufficiently comfortable conditions. The fighting and driving compartments were well ventilated. The commander's workspace to the right of the turret was equipped with a cupola that had seven observation devices. To his left, the gunner observed the battlefield through a periscopic sight. The driver navigated by using slits in a small armoured cockpit to the left of the tank's axis.


Production was held up due to a conflict between the MAVAG and Ganz factories and the General Staff of the Hungarian army. Having received an order for the first batch of tanks in late December of 1937, the factories rejected it based on the low price offered by the military. In addition, Hungary lacked many components for production, and they had to be bought abroad. By February of 1939 an agreement was reached, and the order for 80 vehicles was evenly split between the two factories. The first tanks of this batch were built in April of 1940, and the last was finished in March of 1941.

Hungarian light 38.M "Toldi I" tank crossing a bridge on the Eastern Front.

The tanks of the next series were called Toldi II and differed from their predecessors by the use of only Hungarian components. The modernized tanks also had new radio stations and a thicker gun mantlet. There was a time when purely Hungarian tanks were built alongside tanks that used German components. The only noticeable difference between the Toldi I and the Toldi II was the difference in radio antennas, but after tanks from the first series were re-equipped with new radios, even that distinction disappeared.

In total, 110 tanks of this type were made. 80 of them were seriously converted. Since a heavy anti-tank rifle seemed outdated as the main gun of a tank in the 1940s, the Hungarians instead installed the 40 mm 42.M gun with an ammunition capacity of 55 shells. The new gun was shortened variant of the 41.M gun designed for the Turan medium tank. The armour of the tank was increased. The turret changed: a box for equipment was added on the back. The mass of this tank indexed Toldi IIA grew to 9.35 tons.

Prototype of the 38.M Toldi IIA tank. This vehicle is a Toldi II tank with thicker armour and a 40 mm 42.M gun.

Several tanks were experimentally equipped with 5 mm thick spaced armour on the sides and the turret.

The last modification of the light tank was the Toldi III. This tank had even thicker armour (the gun mantlet and driver's cockpit were 35 mm thick), the turret bustle was widened, and the ammunition capacity was increased to 87 shells. No more than 12 tanks of this type were built.

Toldi III tank. The numbers indicate the armour thickness in those places.

Use in Combat

The first Toldi tanks saw battle in April of 1941. Four months after the signing of a pact of eternal friendship with Yugoslavia, Hungary took part in an invasion of the country. Two motorized and one cavalry brigade of the Hungarian army had a company of 18 light tanks each.

Hungarian tank column. The first tank is a 38.M Toldi I, followed by an Italian L3/35 tankette.

81 Toldi tanks as a part of an independent mobile corps (along with Hungarian Csaba armoured cars and Italian tankettes) took part in Operation Barbarossa. 14 new tanks were sent to the Eastern Front later, in October of 1941. Two tanks from this batch did not survive the railroad journey and were immediately sent back to the factory on the same train. The Eastern Front showed that the light tank, decent for the late 1930s, rapidly became obsolete. The Solothurn could deal with the armour of BT and T-26 tanks, but it was useless against heavy and medium tanks. Thanks to its good radio station, the Toldi could still be used for reconnaissance. To be fair, a 20 mm gun was also used on the German PzII and the Soviet T-60 light tanks.

Hungarian Toldi I tank without armament towed by a German Bussing-NAG truck along a Soviet village street.

The main problem with the Hungarian tank was the poor reliability of its engine and transmission, especially in the conditions of the Eastern Front. Tanks got stuck in the mud, engines broke. Things were bad enough that the Hungarian repair units could not manage to fix the issues fast enough and had to call civilian technicians to the front lines. When the armoured corps returned to Hungary in November of 1941, it turned out that most of the vehicles (37 our of 65) that needed repairs were in that condition because of breakdowns, and not from combat. 17 tanks of this type took part in the 1942 campaign in the USSR. Only 3 returned to Hungary in 1943.

Knocked out Toldi I tank. The vehicle has been stripped for parts.

Toldi tanks of all types were actively used to repel the Soviet offensives in the country. By June of 1944 there were still 129 of them: 66 Toldi I, 63 Toldi II and Toldi IIA. They could only resist Soviet T-34-85s and IS-2s in the most fantastical conditions, and almost all were lost in 1944 and 1945. To be fair, the end of the age of light tanks did not only touch Hungary.

Knocked out Toldi I tank from the 2nd Tank Division, defeated at Budapest. The upper front plate was penetrated by a 57 mm or 76 mm shell. The railroad car in the background carries a Hungarian 41.M Turan II medium tank.

For its time, the light Toldi was one of the best tanks in its class. It remained a good light tank for a long time: the L-60 was still in use by various armies for decades (until the mid 1950s in Sweden, early 1960s in Ireland, and by the Dominican Republic until the early 2000s). In addition, the platform had a large modernization reserve. The Swedish Strv.74 medium tank built in 1957-60 was, in a way, its continuous modernization. The progressive torsion bar suspension is still used in the best tanks worldwide today.

The Toldi was unlucky. Hungary did not have the time or the resources for a deeper modernization, and the Eastern Front, oversaturated with tanks and anti-tank guns, left no niche for a successful deployment.

1 comment:

  1. "Hungarian Toldi I tank without armament towed by a German Bussing-NAG truck along a Soviet village street." I would assume that in "normal" conditions of the eastern front it would be the tank towing the truck that got stuck in the mud - not all the way around. Especially that you can see the Toldi driver communicating with signaler that is next to the tank.