Saturday, 17 June 2017

LT vz. 35: Steel Fist of the First Czechoslovakian Republic

On April 19th, 1933, the Czechoslovakian army signed a contract with CKD to produce 50 light P-II tanks. This ended the 10 year long quest to build a domestic tank. The tank accepted into service on July 13th, 1935, as the LT vz. 35 was sufficiently modern. However, a year later, the Czechoslovakian military needed a better protected tank. This tank, the LT vz. 35, was destined to become the backbone of the Czechoslovakian armoured forces.

Skoda strikes back

The reason for this change was the behaviour of the leadership of their neighbour, Germany. Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor on January 30th, 1933, and the Nazis came to power. Further events developed at a breakneck pace. In February of 1933, Joseph Goebbels, Germany's representative at the disarmament conference in Geneva, made it clear that his country will no longer be limited by the Treaty of Versailles. On October 23rd, 1933, Germany left the commission, and it was clear by next summer that its rearmament had begun.

Unexpectedly, the leading European powers discovered that they were not ready for a new war with Germany. This was most true when it came to tanks, which were hit hard by the 1929 financial crisis. A crisis was also present in the heads of the militaries. A long search for an ideal tank in France led to a situation where in the summer of 1934, 37 tank battalions out of 40 were armed with old Renault FT tanks. 

The British, whose tank fleet chiefly consisted of Medium Tanks Mk.I and Mk.II, accepted into service in the 1920s, weren't doing much better. At best, they could bring 200 obsolete tanks against the Germans. Meanwhile, the Germans were starting production of La.S tanks (future PzI). An arms race was starting in Europe, an arms race which took its final form in 1935.

The light P-II-a tank in its initial configuration. A dummy gun is installed.

Czechoslovakia, Germany's eastern neighbour, began to prepare its answer in the summer of 1934. In August, a report was composed that became the formative document for the construction of a tank force. According to it, the army was expecting 279 light and 42 medium tanks from its country's industry between 1934 and 1937. 240 million Czechoslovakian kroner were allocated for this task.

Specifications for main types of tanks were composed. Category I contained tankettes. The P-II tank belonged to the second category (light cavalry tanks with 15 mm of armour). The II-a category contained light cavalry tanks with 25 mm of front armour and 15 mm of side armour. Category II-b tanks were designed for infantry support, and they would have 25 mm of armour all around. II and II-a tanks would have a 37 mm gun. Finally, category III was for medium tanks, which had 47 mm guns and 32 mm of armour.

The P-II-a tank in its final configuration on trials, July 1937. This photograph shows how the suspension of this tank is radically different from the LT vz. 34.

Unlike the P-II, which CKD designed with almost no competition, a fierce battle was fought for the contract for the II-a. Skoda, whose SU light tank lost the previous battle, was ready for a rematch. On the other hand, CKD took this new competition very lightly.

The result of CKD's work, which started in 1934, was the P-II-a tank. The experimental prototype received the registration number P10.074. A number of publications attack this tank. These attacks claim that CKD put out the same P-II tank, but with thicker armour. This accusation is only partially true. Yes, these tanks looked similar, but it is not correct to say that they were the same.

To start, the P-II-a was 10 cm longer and 14 cm taller than its predecessor. The suspension had to be seriously redesigned, since its mass grew by a ton. The return rollers, idlers, and drive sprockets were redesigned. The tank received wider track links.

There were no fewer changes on the inside. The engine compartment held a 4 cylinder Praga SV 114 hp engine. The P-II-a received a planetary Praga-Wilson gearbox. Thanks to these novelties, the top speed of the P-II-a grew to 36 kph, higher than the requirements for a category II-a tank.

Experimental Skoda S-II prototype during trials in Milovice.

Skoda also decided not to reinvent the wheel and further developed the Skoda S-II (SU) concept. The Skoda S-II-a (registration number C-80509, later 13620) that entered trials in 1935 only inherited the overall layout from its predecessor. While Skoda's engineers were improving their old design, they effectively created a whole new tank. Its mass grew to 10.5 tons and length increased to 4900 mm.

The new tank inherited the T-11 engine and gearbox, but its speed increased to 34 kph. This mostly happened due to a superior running gear. The suspension was also radically changed. The number of road wheels increased to 9 per side, and the idler and drive sprocket received characteristic Skoda rims, which prevented the tracks from slipping off. The track links also became wider.

The Skoda S-II suspension was one of the strong points of the vehicle.

The armament and turret were even more different from the predecessor. As the military demanded, the tank received a 37 mm Skoda A3 cannon and two ZB vz. 35 machineguns. The cannon and machinegun mount were very similar to the one used on the LT vz. 34. The turret was also similar.

As a result of the first stage of trials in the summer of 1935 at a proving grounds in Milovice, Skoda was selected as the winner. CKD protested the decision, which feeds the flames of conspiracy theorists who claim that there was a secret deal between the military and Skoda. Let's be real: the S-II-a was clearly better than the P-II-a.

Among other characteristics, this is especially true of the crew comfort. On CKD's tanks, the crew entered the tank and left it through the turret. Skoda's tanks had hatches in the hull from the very beginning. The S-II-a only had one hatch in the hull, but remember that there were only three crewmen, even though there were four stations.

The acceptance of the S-II-a into service under the index LT vz. 35 on October 30th, 1935, was the correct decision. As for the P-II-a, the tank's registration number was changed to 19.003 and it underwent trials in Milovice in 1937. After trials, the tank was returned to CKD.

Soldiers of misfortune

The tank meant for Czechoslovakian infantry was overshadowed by the fierce battle over the cavalry tank, but nobody cancelled it. The infantry still awaited a tank with 25 mm of armour all around, making it invulnerable to high caliber machineguns. This tank was a sort of answer to the Renault NC, an answer that came about five years too late. By the second half of the 1930s, the firepower of antitank guns increased, which made the French thicken the armour of their prospective tanks.

The only known image of the Skoda S-II-b.

The victory in the cavalry tank tender must have relaxed Skoda's employees. That's the only explanation for the experimental S-II-b tank that arrived for trials in January of 1936, which was effectively a repeat of the S-II-a, but with the side and rear armour increased to 25 mm.

Obviously, this could not happen without consequences. The mass of the tank increased to 12.8 or 13.1 tons, depending on the source. Because of this, the suspension had to be reinforced. Later, in July of 1936, another prototype with serial number 13.638 joined it in trials. Neither tank could speed up over 26 kph, which likely did not make the military too happy.


Trials of the P-II-b infantry tank in Milovice, end of 1936.

The competitors from CKD put more effort into their infantry tank. The P-II-b prototype with serial number 13.636 arrived in Milovice at the end of May 1936. Despite looking similar to the P-II-a, the tank differed greatly from its predecessor. The length of the hull grew to 4.95 m. This was necessary to install the 105 hp Praga SH I6 engine. The hull also changed, especially the engine compartment.

The suspension also changed. Compared to the P-II-a, only the idlers remained the same. The springs were covered by an armour screen to protect them from enemy fire. The air intakes were also protected. Instead of a commander's cupola, there was a bulge that spanned the width of the whole turret, which also changed significantly. Another addition was a pole in front of the driver's vision slit which acted as a sight when aiming the machinegun.

The tank was significantly different from CKD's previous designs.

Comparative trials proved that CKD's tank was superior to its competitor's vehicle. In addition, the P-II-b was faster, with a top speed of 30 kph. However, there was no winner. The military was disappointed with its light infantry tanks and decided to concentrate on medium tanks.

And so, work on the SP-II-b medium tank began, performed jointly by CKD and Skoda. Later, the project resulted in the V-8-H tank, which was accepted into service as the ST vz. 39. As for the P-II-a, it was transferred to Vyškov, where it fell into German hands in 1939. CKD didn't waste its efforts: various components were later used on medium tanks, and the commander's cupola migrated to the Pz.Kpfw.38(t) n.A.

In a storm of politics

The acceptance of the LT vz. 35 did not mean that CKD ended up with nothing. Recall that the military picked Skoda before the end of trials, which caused CKD to accuse them of conspiracy. The issue became serious, and the solution was to split up the order between the two competitors. The scandal perpetuated by CKD was nothing but a smokescreen, since the two companies already agreed on everything. However, that did not stop CKD from tripping up its "friend" at every turn.
Tank #13.666, the first production prototype.

The first order was for 160 tanks for equipment of four armoured battalions in cavalry brigades. On May 12th, 1936, the order was increased by 35 tanks, and another 106 were added one month later. The tanks were expected to start arriving on September 30th, and the order would be completed on July 30th, 1937. As with the LT vz. 34, the hulls would be built by POLDI Hutte from Kladno.

As for the financial side of things, this is where it gets interesting. Skoda asked for 783,550 kroner per tank. This was about 1.5 times as much as a PzII. However, a comparison with the British equivalent, the Vickers Mk.E, is probably more apt, and this tank was significantly more expensive.

The combination of a good price and decent characteristics was the cause of success of Czechoslovakian tanks on the export market. The Vickers Mk.E was losing popularity, since it was becoming obsolete.

The same tank from the right.

However, in the summer of 1936, Czechoslovakian tank builders had no room on their plate for export orders. Both Skoda and CKD had significant difficulty with ramping up production. It turned out that the tank was difficult and poorly planned from a production standpoint. Significantly more time than planned was required to set up technological processes. as a result, the first 15 production LT vz. 35 tanks were only delivered by Skoda in on December 21st, 1935.

All of them were sent to the 1st Tank Regiment in Milovice, where military trials began. One tank drove for 4000 km from January to March of 1937, without significant problems. As for CKD, the first 10 tanks were ready on February 13th, 1937. The tanks were sent to the 2nd Tank Regiment in Praslavice.

The same tank from the left.

Reliability trials of mass production tanks painted a different picture. Two Skoda tanks (13.683 and 13.696) and one CKD (13.721) were tested in Milovice. Each tank traveled 5-7 thousand kilometers, and the results were far from ideal. Both design defects and factory defects surfaced during trials.

Returns from the army also started coming in at around the same time. The situation was so serious that the order for 103 tanks of the third series was stopped. The Ministry of Defense only signed the deal on November 7th, 1937, but this didn't stop CKD from delivering their last tank before the end of 1937. As for Skoda, their last tank left the factory in Pilsen on April 8th, 1938.

Both companies produced 149 LT vz. 35. Most tanks (197) were sent to the 1st Tank Regiment. Another 49 were sent to the 2nd Tank Regiment, and the remaining 57 tanks ended up in the 3rd Tank Regiment (Martin, Slovakia). The manufacturers did their duty when it came to repairs, and the defects were gradually removed. Trust in the LT vz. 35 was restored.

The ZB vz. 35 machineguns were replaced with the superior LT vz. 37. As for plans of saturating the military with LT vz. 35 tanks, those were completely forgotten.

LT vz. 35 from the 3rd Tank Regiment, on maneuvers in the fall 1938. The training exercises happened during a time of tension with Germany. Later, the tank was included in the Slovakian army.

Disappointed in the joint project, CKD focused on their own projects, and Skoda began looking for foreign buyers. Romania was interested in the tank, and ended up buying 126 of them. However, due to the reliability issues that surfaced, a decision was made to wait a while before signing the order. Because of this, production of the S-II-aR began closer to the fall of 1938.

At that point, the Czechoslovakian army underwent urgent mobilization in connection with rapidly worsening relations with Germany. A part of the Romanian order was confiscated. However, the tanks were never used: as a result of the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was forced to surrender the Sudetenland to Germany. Poland also grabbed a slice, occupying Český Těšín. In this situation, the Czechoslovakian army lost interest in further orders.

The fulfillment of the Romanian order continued, and the buyer received the last of the tanks, indexed R-2, on February 22nd, 1939. Approximately half of these tanks were from the R-2c modification. These tanks were almost identical to the regular R-2, but used cemented armour. You can tell these tanks apart by the characteristic shape of the rear turret plate.

R-2c, a variant of the tank made for the Romanians, built using cemented armour.

Other countries also took an interest in the Czechoslovakian tank. In September of 1938, negotiations between Skoda and the British Alvis Straussler company to produce the tank under license. According to Czech historian Vladimir Francev, the plan was to build 100 tanks at Skoda and 100 more under the license. Considering how poorly British tank building was doing at the time, this idea sounds reasonable. However, negotiations ended with nothing in 1939.

The situation with LT vz. 35 tanks in the USSR was no less interesting. The USSR was an ally of Czechoslovakia. On May 16th, 1935, an agreement was signed about mutual military aid. One of the practical consequences of this aid was the production of B-71 bombers at Avia, a clone of the Soviet SB.

The USSR received complete information about new Czechoslovakian vehicles in return. As a result, trials of the S-II-a and one production tank with serial number 13.903 happened at Kubinka in the fall of 1938. The tanks were rated quite highly by Soviet specialists. The suspension was particularly interesting.

LT vz. 35 at the NIIBT proving grounds, September 1938.

The Soviet side offered to purchase the two tanks that arrived for trials. However, Skoda fell victim to greed and mistrust. The company became suspicious that the USSR might clone the S-II-a, and demanded that the USSR buy a production license. The request was denied, and the tanks returned to Czechoslovakia.

To be fair, the S-II-a would never have been built in the USSR. The tank was interesting purely as a sample of Czechoslovakian technologies. The suspension was of interest, and it was later copied and tested on the T-26. There was a plan to use it on the SP-126 infantry support tank, but the idea was rejected in favour of a torsion bar suspension.

As for the S-II-a that went through Soviet trials, they returned to Czechoslovakia and were used during the border skirmish when Hungary tried to occupy Transcarpathian Ukraine. Tank #13909 was knocked out and captured by the Hungarians. There, it received the registration number 1H-407. The S-II-a prototype was captured by the Romanians and returned to Skoda. It spent some time at a trophy exhibit in Vienna, after which it was sold to the Waffen SS purchasing commission for 35,000 Reichsmarks in December of 1942. Interestingly enough, the Skoda factory was currently owned by the SS. It so turned out that the SS sold the tank to itself at half price.

Light T-11 tank in the Bulgarian army. The tank belongs to a batch of 10 tanks, originally built for Afghanistan.

Improvements of the S-II-a continued even after complete occupation of Czechia by Germany on March 15th, 1939. On May 26th, 1938, Skoda changed the index of the tank to T-11 (where 11 was the combat mass). The old indexes still held for some time. A Polish delegation visited the factory on March 9th, where it expressed interest in all Skoda tanks, but this interest did not develop into anything.

10 T-11 tanks were built for an order from Afghanistan. which were equipped with improved Skoda A-7 37 mm guns. The tanks were built, but never made it to Asia. Later, these tanks, which received a factory designation of S-II-aB, were sold to Bulgaria.

S-II-aJ in its initial configuration.

Yugoslavia was another country that took an interest in the Czechoslovakian tank. The project, named S-II-aJ, had a slightly altered design. Initially, it used a diesel engine. In addition, the turret and armament were changed. The tank received a new commander's cupola, and a more powerful 47 mm A-9 gun instead of the 37 mm A-3.

This is how the S-II-aJ, or Skoda T-12, was built in metal.

The tank, built in early 1939, was demonstrated to the Yugoslavian delegation. According to research by Jiri Tintera, the tank did indeed receive a diesel engine. What happened later is not known. One thing is known for certain: the Yugoslavian army lost interest in the tank. It's possible that the diesel engine was the cause of this disinterest.

The tank was converted. Instead of a diesel engine, it received a 135 hp Skoda T-11/2 engine. In this form, the tank was tested by the Hungarians from May 7th to May 9th, 1940. However, the Hungarians already had a tank by that point, the Landsverk L-60, which was accepted into service as the 38M Toldi I. The deal with Skoda for the tank, now indexed T-12, fell through. 

Skoda T-13M, the best protected variant of the S-II-a. It appeared too late to interest potential buyers.

The T-13 was another dead end of the S-II-a's development. The tank's initial index was R-2a. This was the same S-II-a, but its characteristics were closer to that of the S-II-b infantry tank. The thickness of the armour grew to 30 mm in the front and 25 mm on the sides. The improved A-7 gun was installed in the turret. Due to the increase of the mass to 12.6 tons, the improved T-11/2 engien was used. It didn't help much: the top speed during trials was only 32 kph. The trials lasted until 1941 and did not demonstrate impressive results.

The light Skoda T-14 tank, the last of the S-II-a family. It was never built in metal.

The Skoda T-14 was the last of the S-II-a family. This tank was built with a new buyer in mind: Germany. It was a further development of the Skoda T-12. The tank received a reworked commander's cupola and an even more powerful 47 mm A-11 cannon. The suspension and fighting compartment were reworked slightly. However, the tank did not attract much interest from the potential buyer.

By 1941, the S-II-a concept was completely obsolete. It needed a deep modernization, not cosmetic improvements. Skoda's employees understood this. In late December of 1940, the light T-15 tank was designed. As for the T-14, it did not move past the drawing board.

Despite all of its issues, the LT vz. 35 can't be called a bad tank. It fought in the German army for more than two years, and Bulgaria kept these tanks until the early 1950s. This was one of the best light tanks in the world when it entered production. Unfortunately for Czechoslovakia, these tanks could not protect their country from Germany. Politicians often turn out to be much scarier than tanks.

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