Monday, 24 June 2013

A tank, a tank, my kingdom for a tank!

(This is another of those magazine articles that made the 'not quite' pile, although this time the subject matter is interwar tanks ... I wrote it a while ago, so the availability of models could do with readers' input. Cheers.)

The popularity of 1930s British Civil War gaming – fought out in an imaginary twentieth century interwar period inspired by Ian McKellen’s Richard III and the real life Spanish Civil War among other events – has allowed me to game with models I never have thought I’d be able to. I have a long held interest in British tank development between the wars, and this has led me to collect armies of early war British armour: barely armoured cruiser tanks made from little more than tin foil and armed with broom handles. That’s led to some pretty humiliating defeats at the hands of both German and Italian armies of 1940-41, but shifting back a few years to an imaginary civil war, the very same British tanks become battle-winning monsters the equivalent of any German big cat in the mid-1940s, and Russia’s humble T26 forces a sharp intake of breath when it appears on the tabletop.

It is unlikely that any force in an interwar British Civil War would have been able to raise a substantial force of tanks, but some armies might have been able to field reasonable numbers. Local militias might be lucky enough to have procured one or two vehicles, or perhaps even a small field force including a mixture of several tank types (a modeller’s dream). Armoured cars are outside the scope of this article, partly because these are the sort of vehicle that players enjoy creating their own ad hoc versions of, but also because British armoured doctrine of the interwar period seemed to favour the use of tankettes and light tanks over their wheeled rivals.

For each tank I’ve assigned a ‘rarity’ value; rather than giving precise numbers built over a given period; I think it makes more sense from a gaming point of view to show how likely such a tank might be to turn up on the battlefield. This doesn’t always reflect use solely in the UK, but the numbers of models built and adopted elsewhere too. This means that the Renault FT17 and Vickers E are very common as they were exported and used around the world (the Vickers even put in an appearance in the Chaco War, and were the first tanks ever used in combat in the Americas), and the Medium Mk III is very rare, as only three were ever built. As an added get-out clause, we’re dealing with an alternate reality interwar period here, so who’s to say which tanks might have been produced in greater or lesser numbers than real life?

My own BCW force takes its name from a Sussex Home guard unit from the Second World War: the Lewes Cossacks. This unit took the unusual step of operating as Home Guard cavalry in the Second World War, but I’ve chosen to drag them back a few years and transfer them into a force of cavalry and Vickers six tonners. Fascists shudder in fear when the Cossacks roll into town!

Statting up your tanks
Some interwar rules already include tanks, but many players tinker with Second World War rules for their BCW games, so for those tanks not commonly used in games this section guides you through how to stat up your army’s tanks.

Regarding armament, most of the tanks below are armed with machine guns or heavy calibre machine guns. These should be easy to work out stats for, as several machine-gun toting relics served in the early stages of the Second World War. Watch out for where the machine guns point, as some interwar tanks have 1 or 2 x MG in a turret, others have extra ones firing to the side and sometimes rear. Some tanks – such as the Medium Mk III, A1E1 Independent, and A9 cruiser – have sub-turrets with their own forward firing machine guns within.

The most common interwar heavy gun on British tanks was the 3 pdr (47mm). This was replaced on the A9 and later tanks by the excellent 2 pdr (available from 1936 onward), which had superior armour piercing qualities to the lower velocity 3 pdr; however, the 3 pdr did have HE ammunition, which was not issued for the later 2 pdr. Therefore, stat your 3 pdr at a lower armour penetration value than the Second World War 2 pdr, but allow HE rounds. The 3 pdr was used with both long and short barrels, the latter more akin to a howitzer. Also note that the 6 pdr on the Mark IV First World War tank is not the anti-tank weapon of the 1940s but a lower velocity field artillery piece.

Regarding armour thickness, with the exception of the Matilda I, there’s not much to impress with! As a comparison to Second World War tanks, I’ve shown a few sample armour thicknesses here to deduce your own stats from:

  • 14mm: A13 cruiser Mk III
  • 30mm: Panzer III F
  • 50mm: Panzer IV F2
  • 78mm: Matilda II
In truth, most BCW tanks will have the lightest armour available while still allowing them to count as armoured. Take a look at the Panzer I, T26, and A13 stats in your chosen game for a good guide on grading the armour of any of these tanks.

When it comes to speed, this can be deceptive, but again, the easiest way to derive stats is by comparison to more common Second World War tanks (and infantry):

  • Infantry walking pace: 5 kph
  • Matilda II: 25 kph
  • Panzer III F: 40 kph
  • T34: 50 kph
Reliability becomes an interesting feature of interwar tanks. As was the case with British cruiser tanks of the Second World War, many interwar tanks were mechanically unreliable, being as likely to shed a track or suffer engine failure as they were to be knocked out on the battlefield. Flames of War is one of the few games I’ve seen try to account for this, with mixed results, but it’s certainly worth considering how reliable you think armour would be in a BCW campaign: how skilled are the mechanics keeping the tanks running? How about the crew? And how about the tank itself? To add an extra bit of fun to your games, you might consider dicing to see whether any tanks you’ve included in your army make it onto the battlefield at initial deployment, or if they break down when moving in consecutive turns (roll a 1 on a D6 and the tank becomes immobile).

A final note before moving on to look at the tanks: data sources sometimes vary, especially for top speeds and armour thickness during different years! Armament is less of an issue, but remember that the data below shows the factory or government fitted armament. There’s no reason why your BCW army should follow this convention … which could lead you to mix-and-match turrets from different tank models. You might also consider adding anti-tank rifles to some tanks in place of a machine gun: although outdated early in the Second World War, the Boys anti-tank rifle (introduced in 1937, although other anti-tank rifles were available before this) could become the formidable equivalent of a modern ATGW when put up against the thickness of armour on most of these tanks. Flamethrowers made an appearance on a few interwar tanks, but this would be most unsporting for the BCW … however, should your army be supplied with Soviet T26 or Italian CV L3/33s, flamethrowers might just make an unwelcome appearance!

British tanks between the wars
Let’s take a look at the tanks on offer.

  • NAME: Mark IV tank (First World War design)
  • YEAR: 1917
  • ARMAMENT: 2 x 6pdr; 4 x MG.
    TOP SPEED: 6 kph
  • RARITY: Rare
  • INFO: I’ve chosen the Mk IV to represent lingering First World War philosophies; more Mark IVs were built than any other British heavy tank in the First World War, so could have been the most common ‘old’ tank lurking around; other Marks were of similar spec. By the BCW period the design was dated and in the age of the turreted tank, this design dated quickly. The weapons were mounted on side sponsons; the slab-sided armour plates were bullet proof but make easy targets for high velocity guns, and movement was restricted to walking pace. Despite this, it’s not out of the question that these tanks could be requisitioned – one Mark IV patrolled the streets of Portsmouth during Second World War air raids, until it damaged a civilian car and was withdrawn from service.

  • NAME: Medium A Whippet (First World War design)
  • YEAR: 1917
  • ARMAMENT: 4 x MG
    TOP SPEED: 13 kph
  • RARITY: Common
  • INFO: The Whippet had a fixed turret with one MG firing to the front, sides, and rear. In the First World War, it held a proven record against infantry but mostly avoided enemy armour (this should be your plan on the BCW battlefield, too); post-war it served in Ireland and Russia. Three improved versions were designed, although the Medium C Hornet, which could be armed with a 6 pdr, was the last to move beyond the design board.

  • NAME: Vickers Medium Mk II
  • YEAR: 1925
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x 3pdr; 3 or 4 x MG
    TOP SPEED: 24 kph
  • RARITY: Common
  • INFO: The Medium Mk II was the mainstay of British armoured units from the late 1920s to the late 1930s, available in a rather fetching gloss dark green paint which was almost as thick as the armour. MGs faced front, sides, and rear. Like several of the tanks detailed in this article, it was very advanced when introduced, but was dated by the late 1930s. Before this date, the Mk II would have been a useful tank on the battlefield, and was noted as being both reliable and cheap. Interesting Mk II fact: construction included asbestos, so a direct hit was dangerous in the long term as well as the short term!

  • NAME: A1E1 Independent
  • YEAR: 1926
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x 3 pdr; 4 x MG
    TOP SPEED: 32 kph
  • RARITY: Very rare
  • INFO: How many turrets do you want?! The main turret housed the 3 pdr and four sub-turrets (on the front corners and behind the main turret) allowed all round fire from MGs. Later experience proved that sub-turrets were difficult to coordinate in battle, and large superstructures with flat sides just presented enemy gunners with easy targets. The Independent was difficult to steer, and telephone and telegraph were the only ways to communicate between turrets. Only one was ever built, but any aspiring BCW commander should want to put it into mass production, for looks alone! This land warship influenced the later Russian T35, which held a dismal service record; on the BCW battlefield, I’d strongly advise a morale test to be taken by all enemy units the first time that this behemoth comes within one move of them – the size and number of turrets are intimidating even if the performance didn’t match the promise. I’m only aware of one model of this tank (28mm Copplestone Castings), but Soviet T35 models could be used at a pinch – they’re not quite the same, being better armed, but it’s a similarly imposing model.

  • NAME: Vickers Mk E ‘Six tonner’
  • YEAR: 1928
  • ARMAMENT: 2 x MG (in two turrets) or 1 x 3 pdr and 1 x MG (in one turret)
    TOP SPEED: 32 kph
  • RARITY: Very common
  • INFO: The Mk E was a popular tank, spawning many exports and influencing several other tank designs around the world; like the Medium Mk II, this was an advanced design for the time. Despite this, and despite the fact that it proved to be a useful and versatile fighting machine all around the world, the British did not adopt it owing to misgivings over the suspension. Due to its export and licensing, at the start of the Second World War, the Vickers E was the second most common tank in the world, after the French Renault FT17. The armament could make or break this tank on the BCW battlefield – MG-only or low velocity 3 pdr guns impede its usefulness, but if you upgrade to a better weapon, as many countries did, the Mk E becomes a state of the art fighting machine. A growing number of models of this important tank are available, and proxies can be made from the Soviet and Finnish T26, and Polish 7TP (20mm Frontline and 6mm GHQ).

  • NAME: Carden Loyd tankette
  • YEAR: 1929
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x MG
    TOP SPEED: 45 kph
  • RARITY: Common
  • INFO: Various models of this tiny tankette were made, the stats being for a late model (Mk VI). The Carden Loyd was a surprisingly influential design, being used as the basis for the Italian CV L3/33, the Soviet T27, and the British Universal/Bren carrier. These tankettes were open topped and carried a forward facing MG, but the Italian and Soviet spin offs both had closed tops so it’s not inconceivable for your force to make the same development. Poland developed the TK series of tankettes based on the Carden Loyd, and somehow managed to cram a 20mm gun into the TKS.  Performance-wise, although outclassed by the 1940s, it seems a fair conclusion that in 1920s and 1930s armies the tankette would have made a significant impact for scouting and infantry support, otherwise fewer copies would have been designed. The Red Army successfully operated their vehicles to put down an uprising in Central Asia, and Italian tankettes had mixed results on campaign, being completely outclassed by the time of the Spanish Civil War. I’m not aware of any Carden Loyd carriers, but suitable proxies can be found in Polish TK tankettes (20mm Frontline; 15mm QRF; 6mm GHQ) and the Italian CV L3/33. Open topped British carriers from the 1940s could be pushed into service as proxies –they’re easily available and convey the Carden Loyd concept well.

  • NAME: Vickers Medium Mk III / A6 ‘Sixteen tonner’
  • YEAR: 1930
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x 3pdr; 3 x MG
    TOP SPEED: 48 kph
  • RARITY: Very rare
  • INFO: This tank never entered full production but served as the blueprint for the later A9. It was fast for its size and carried a good armament; unfortunately it was costly and had poor suspension, so was never adopted by the British army. This could be a useful tank on the VBCW battlefield, although it had poor cross country performance, and the sub-turret concept was shown to be impractical on later tanks that saw combat. Stats shown are for the Mk III, which developed from the earlier (1926) A6; only three Mk IIIs were produced. MGs faced the front, including two in sub-turrets. I’m only aware of two models of this tank (28mm Copplestone Castings and10mm Pendraken); a good proxy is the Soviet T28 which has a similar design and shows the multi-turret concept well.

  • NAME: Vickers Light Mk IV
  • YEAR: 1934
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x HMG, 1 x MG
    TOP SPEED: 56 kph
  • RARITY: Common
  • INFO: Vickers produced a series of lightly armoured but fast recon tanks, which proved fairly well suited to policing actions around the Empire’s rough terrain, which bodes well for their use in the VBCW. It suffered from a two man crew (like many other light tanks of this period), which was rectified to three crew on the Mk V. Virtually identical to the Mk IV was the 1936 ‘Dutchman’, designed by Vickers for the export market; this was armed with a single MG and had a hexagonal turret; the Belgian T15 was also based on this design, mounting a 20mm cannon. The Mk IV or its variants could prove to be useful tanks on the VBCW battlefield, not least due to its high speed; up-gunned versions such as the T15 could prove powerful if fielded in larger formations than ever occurred historically. The Mk IV looks quite different to the later Mk VI, which is available in most scales; that said, I’m sure few players will complain if you use MK VIs as proxy models.

  • NAME: A9 cruiser
  • YEAR: 1938
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x 2 pdr; 3 x MG
    TOP SPEED: 40 kph
  • RARITY: Rare
  • INFO: The A9 was a much maligned cruiser tank at the start of the Second World War, but just a few years earlier would have seen service as a technology-advanced battle winner, owing to the superb penetration of its 2 pdr gun and power traverse turret. It was fast but poorly armoured, and its armament should make any enemy think twice about approaching it on a BCW battlefield. The A9 had two forward firing MGs in sub-turrets, and one MG in the turret co-axial to the main gun; in combat, the sub-turrets were rarely used as they proved difficult to coordinate and filled with gas from the MGs. Trundling off the design board shortly after the A9 was the A10 Heavy Cruiser, up-armoured and without the sub-turrets, which in turn was the basis for the more successful Second World War Valentine series. A small proportion of A9s were designated ‘Close Support’ tanks, replacing the 2 pdr with a smoke-only 3.7” howitzer (HE capability was supplied later).

  • NAME: A11 Matilda I
  • YEAR: 1938
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x HMG or MG
    TOP SPEED: 13 kph
  • RARITY: Rare
  • INFO: This isn’t the much better known ‘Queen of the Battlefield’ Matilda II; the Matilda I cunningly used 11 tons of tank to transport one machine gun to the battlefield! The spindly yet tough Matilda I would be virtually impenetrable to most artillery on the BCW battlefield … in fact it was probably more likely to break down than be knocked out. Despite its limited armament, the Matilda served well in France in 1940, but was powerless when it met other tanks. The HMG should give reasonable penetration against the light armour encountered, and the almost impenetrable armour makes this tank’s painfully slow speed less of an issue. Snap them up if you can … treat the Matilda as a (slowly) mobile pillbox and it will give good service.

Fancy foreign imports
To the home grown list we can add some imported tanks, available perhaps to Fascist or Communist armies flourishing in our imaginary interwar Britain. Some of these tanks saw service in the Spanish Civil War, as well as early in the Second World War, so more model options exist for each.

  • NAME: Renault FT
  • YEAR: 1917
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x HMG or 37mm
    TOP SPEED: 8 kph
  • RARITY: Very common
  • INFO: Although slow and of First World War vintage, the FT was the mainstay of many countries tank forces between the wars (France still had 1600 at the outbreak of the Second World War). The Russians and Americans both used the design, which also managed to up-gun from an MG to a short barrelled 37mm gun in its small turret. Armour thickness was reasonable, although the FT would not be a match for the Matilda I in the BCW, which fulfilled a similar tactical role. French tank design between the wars is a fascinating subject in its own right, and your VBCW army might consider looking further into developments across the Channel. A favourite model of mine was the old Matchbox kit (twinned with the impressive Char B), one of the first tank models I made that wasn’t a Sherman or Tiger!

  • NAME: T26
  • YEAR: 1932
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x 37mm or 45mm and 1 x MG, or 2 x MG
  • MAXIMUM ARMOUR: 15mm (later 25mm)
    TOP SPEED: 28 kph
  • RARITY: Common
  • INFO: The Soviet version of the Vickers E, with standardised armament of 2 x MG or a 45mm gun (in twin or single turrets respectively, just like the Vickers). The T26 ruled the Spanish Civil War battlefield when used correctly. The basic design worked, but the real battle-winner was the 45mm gun, which outclassed any armour on contemporary battlefields … so much so that the Nationalists offered a bounty of 500 pesatas for any captured T26. This tank’s superiority was further enforced against the Japanese at Lake Khasan and Khalkin Gol in the late 1930s. If your army jumps into bed with the Communist party and secures delivery of this tank, you’re onto a winner! It’s easy enough to find the single turret T26 in most scales and some twin turret models are available too.

  • NAME: BT series
  • YEAR: 1932
  • ARMAMENT: 2 x MG or 1 x 37mm or 1 x 45mm; 1 or 2 x MG
  • MAXIMUM ARMOUR: 13mm (BT7 22mm)
    TOP SPEED: 65 kph on tracks; 112 kph on road wheels!
  • RARITY: Common
  • INFO: The BT series of tanks were based on the American Christie tank, a lightly armoured but fast running vehicle; the original was unarmed, but the Soviets designed their own turret and at first included MGs, then upgraded with heavier guns. By the Second World War, the BT tanks were of minimal use, but with better tactics could have been influential in the Spanish Civil War. The idea of a fast tank stuck throughout the 1930s, and an interesting feature of the Christie design was the removable tracks, allowing faster speed on roads from the wheels alone; this was rarely put into practice. The BT can be used as a template for all manner of potential national conversions of the original US-designed Christie tank. Armour and speed should remain the same, but armament could vary (as could turret design). In addition to the BT series, the British A13 and Russian T34 can trace their lineage back to the Christie tank. The BT series and Christie tanks should be quite formidable in BCW games.

  • NAME: CV L3/33
  • YEAR: 1933
  • ARMAMENT: 1 x HMG or 2 x MG; L35f carried a flamethrower
    TOP SPEED: 42 kph
  • RARITY: Common
  • INFO: Derived from the Carden-Loyd tankette, the CV L3/33 was badly exposed in Spanish Civil War service, it’s thin armour and MG-only armament dated in comparison to the T26 and BT series. Despite this, mechanically it was a step up in design from the Carden Loyd, and if it manages to avoid enemy armour, the CV L3/33 might prove to be of some use. A variation replaced one of the MGs to enable a flamethrower to be used.

  • NAME: Panzer I
  • YEAR: 1934
  • ARMAMENT: 2 x MG
    TOP SPEED: 40 kph
  • RARITY: Common
  • INFO: The first of the panzers does not live up to the excellent and deserved reputation of its successors; to be fair, it had never been intended as a main battle tank. Twin MGs in the turret were useful against infantry, although like several other interwar tanks, the two man crew proved one crewman too few on the battlefield. The Panzer I served with some success in the Spanish Civil War, but the lack of an anti-tank gun proved a drawback. 1935’s Panzer II added a 20mm cannon and two more crewmen, and would be a more welcome (if difficult to obtain, on account of Mr Hitler’s unpopularity with right-thinking governments) addition to any BCW force.

Finding models
(This section is a bit out of date now… feel free to add suggestions in your comments at the end of the piece)
Those tanks which saw active service in the Second World War are relatively easy to source from manufacturers in the most common scales: you shouldn't have too many problems finding a Panzer I or T26 for example. Other models require a bit more ingenuity and you might need to look at look-alike models for a few tanks, which is easier to get away with the smaller the scale you choose to game in. In addition to the metal and resin models commonly used by gamers, remember to scour the world of plastic kits too.

I’ve noted the main manufacturers for this period below:

  • 28mm: Army Group North, BEF, Brigade, Copplestone Castings, Force of Arms
  • 20mm: Frontline, IT, Milicast, MMS, SHQ
  • 15mm: Battlefront, Blue Moon, Peter Pig, QRF
  • 10mm: Pendraken, Pithead, Minifigs
  • 6mm: GHQ, Heroics & Ros, Scotia

Find out more
If you’re interested in tanks, especially of this period, you should really try to get yourself to the Tank Museum at Bovington in the UK. In addition to the only Independent tank in the world, it’s got a superb collection of Interwar armour, including each of the tanks (or their derivatives) featured in this article apart from the Medium Mk III.

Failing that, the following books are highly recommended:

  • Peter Beale, Death By Design, 1998. British tank development before and during the Second World War.
  • Peter Chamberlain and Chris Ellis, British and American Armour of World War Two, 2004. Includes useful sections on Vickers tanks and the early war cruisers.
  • George Forty, Tanks of World Wars I and II, 2006. Because this book is pretty much a guide to the tanks on show at Bovington, it’s a useful guide for the interwar period, and includes some great camo schemes to copy.
  • Ian V Hogg and John Weeks, 1980, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Military Vehicles. There are many such books available, but this is the most complete I’ve found, rather than just focussing on armour of the Third Reich and modern US Army.
  • Steven J Zaloga, Spanish Civil War Tanks, 2010. Osprey’s well illustrated analysis of the Panzer I, T26, and BT series.