Monday, May 11, 2015

Confessions of a Shameless Treadhead

Yeah, that's me. A Treadhead. A Rivetcounter. A Tank Geek before there were Geeks and they were cool.

So there's nothing more exciting and invigorating for a creature such as yours truly than to be able to actually get up close and personal with the real tanks and combat vehicles from history that have inspired me since childhood to build model tanks, study history, and make wild and wonderful science fiction creations to storm across the battlefields of the imagination. Such a marvelous and rare opportunity came last year when the collection of restored-as-much-as-possible military vehicles and weapon systems of the late Jaques Littlefield. Mr. Littlefield's family made the decision to auction off most of his collection, while transferring the best of the collection to a foundation back East that would house the vehicles and preserve them for posterity. 

Of course those of us Bay Area natives who have appreciated Jaques's efforts and his making his collection available to academics and other interested parties who appreciate such historical machines were more than a little appalled and dismayed, so many of us wasted no time in arranging a last visit or two to tour the collection before it was gone. My old friend and mentor Dr. Sheldon Greaves and I managed to visit the collection one last time, and between us we shot as many photos as we could manage during the course of the tour.

Jaques's collection contained many a personal favorite, including more than a few machines that I had built scale models of as a child, and quite a few that I still to this day will not hesitate to use as the basis for a sci-fi conversion project.

So in no particular order, here for your inspiration and perusal is a selection of the photos I shot during that last afternoon of wonder and awe at these machines of decades past. Whether you're a builder of scale models, a wargamer, or a history buff, I hope that these photos will help illuminate the reality of these often imposing war machines and shed some small light on the nature of technologies past.

So we begin with the oldest vehicle in the collection, a U.S. 6 Ton Tank M1918, a copy of the French Renault FT-17. The FT-17 is the granddaddy of all modern battle tanks, being the pioneering tank design to employ a revolving turret containing the vehicle's armament and the engine and fuel tanks to the rear of the machine's layout:

Moving into the 1920s is this rare civilian Citroen-Kegresse halftrack all terrain vehicle. A French exploratory expedition traversed thousands of miles riding in halftracks very similar to this one during the 1920s, tackling rugged, mountainous terrain and braving Chinese bandits and warlord soldiers among the many challenges such an undertaking had to face. A perfect mount I would dare assert for one's favorite pulp fiction heroes delving into the Lost World or investigating reports of a dread cult worshipping a strange and terrifying octopus god attacking caravans along the Silk Road:

The 1930s, where austere budgets imposed by The Great Depression limit the development of tanks to small, light machines little better than the Great War vintage FT-17 and a resurgent Germany begins to rearm for a rematch to avenge the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. We start with the British Vickers Mk. IV light tank, followed by the Panzerkampfwagen I and the British answer to the new German panzers, the 2 Pounder antitank gun:

The armament of the three man Mk. IV light tank consisted of a Vickers .303 inch  machine gun and a .5 inch Vickers heavy machine gun, the later being it's only anti-armor weapon capability. While a heavy machine gun firing armor piercing bullets was adequate in 1918 against the generally thin armor of most tanks of the period, by the time the Mk. VI Light Tank entered combat against the German panzers in 1940, it was hopelessly inadequate for anything other than reconnaissance work and painfully outclassed in a tank vs, tank encounter by even the light Panzer II's 2 cm. automatic cannon.

All that being said about the Vickers Mk. IV, the Panzerkampfwagen I was in no way any better, and in fact somewhat worse off being armed with two rifle caliber light machine guns and desperately thin armor protection for its two-man crew:

The last photo shows just how tiny the two-man Panzer I was compared to the five-man Panzerkampfwagen IV. The one man turret of the Panzer I was a further hinderance in combat, as the occupant was overworked as they had to command the vehicle, locate targets, load and fire the machine guns, and operate the radio, and if a unit commander direct the actions of the other tanks under their command:

The 1930s also saw the export market for tanks move along as a small but growing concern. A modern army had tanks if at all possible, and many a minor nation was quick to recognize the potential of having even a few tanks if their neighbors did not. A surprising number of short production run tanks and armored vehicles were produced during the 1920s and 30s, and this rare Marmon-Harrington export tank is an excellent example of the adaptation of a commercial tractor chassis suspension and powerplant to try and create a viable tank for the foreign export market:

The holes in the front of the vehicle were for .30 cal. light machine guns. The main armament in the turret consisted of a single 37mm gun covered by a thick armored sleeve. The short track base, thin armor, and poor crew configuration made this vehicle inadequate for any modern operations. Only a relative handful were built and exported.

As tanks grew larger and their armor thicker, the anti-tank rifle firing 12.7mm armor piercing bullets was recognized to being obsolescent, and new, more powerful weapons began to come into service in the later 1930s. This British 2 Pounder "Pop Gun" was fairly typical of the antitank guns of this period, and was by the standards of the day more than capable a weapon against the thin armor of the German panzers it opposed. The 2 Pounder in fact outperformed its contemporaries in its armor piercing capabilities, being able to penetrate thicker armor than the German 3.7 cm Pak 36 and even the heavier French 47mm 37SA Puteaux antitank gun (although the French weapon outclassed all the others thanks to its ability to fire both armor piercing and a useful high explosive shell):

Here is a Pak 36, the standard German antitank gun in service from the later 1930s until 1942 when it was replaced by the more powerful 5 cm Pak 38 as the standard frontline German antitank gun:

The standard tow vehicle for the Pak 36 was the Protze Boxer 4x6 light truck. A 1930s design, the vehicle's mediocre cross-country performance would quickly demonstrate its inadequacy for keeping up with the panzers, and would eventually be phased out in favor of halftracks as the standard ride and light weapons carrier and prime mover of the Wehrmacht:

As the 1930s end and World War II begins, newer, heavier designs of tank take the field in the first clashes of armor of the conflict. The Matilda II infantry tank is a prime example of both the limitations of the interwar tank designs and the differing doctrines of tanks and their uses. This particular Matilda II is finished in the unique camouflage pattern found on British tanks and military vehicles in the Western Desert Campaign in 1941:


UP Next: Tanks and AFVs of World War II and the Cold War Era


  1. Lovely pics. That Citroen-Kegresse was a particularly nice find!

  2. You have no idea how much I wanted to hotwire that little Citroen-Kegresse and make off with it... it is indeed a unique piece of automotive history.