During the Second World War the US Army sought a light, nimble tank destroyer. The M8 developed by Ford ticked the Army’s boxes but by the time it entered production it’s 37mm gun couldn’t penetrate thicker enemy armour. Instead the M8 was pressed into service as a scout car.
The M8 first saw action in Sicily in 1943 and subsequently saw service in every theatre of World War Two. One M8 reputedly knocked out a German Tiger II during the Battle of St. Vith, in December 1944.
The M8, while excellent on roads, did not perform well across country because of higher ground pressure from its wheels and its suspension system. Largely confined to roads when terrain or conditions were bad the M8’s thin armour also proved vulnerable to enemy mines. This was a problem first encountered in Italy and later in northwest Europe.
Despite its shortcomings the M8 remained in service long after the war and many were sold as surplus with them continuing to be used throughout the Cold War all over the world. Some 8,500 were built.
Continuing our series looking at US tanks of World War One, in which we have already taken a look at the Ford M1918 3-Ton Tank, in this video/article we will take a look at the M1917 Light Tank.
The US Army entered the Great War with no tanks or experience in armoured warfare. When the American Expeditionary Force’s Tank Corps was formed in early 1918, it was equipped with French and British tanks. With plans to rapidly expand the US Tank Corps with battalions training in the US, France and Britain, a large number of tanks would be needed. The corps trained with the French Renault FT light tank and the British MkV but with French production stretched to capacity they could not hope to provide the US with the tanks it was expected to need for operations during 1919.
As a result the US negotiated with France for a license to produce the FT in the US, commissioned a smaller 3-ton light tank from Ford and entered into an agreement with Britain to build a new heavy tank – the MkVIII. The American-made FTs were designated the Model 1917 6-ton light tank. 4,400 were ordered, with deliveries to begin in April 1918. The Ordnance Department finalised the M1917s design and contracted a number of private companies to build the tanks.
Delays in production, however, meant that the first American tanks were completed in October 1918, and none of the M1917s reached the Western Front before the war ended. As a result, the primary US tank of the war was the original French Renault FT, revolutionary for its turret which could rotate 360-degrees and its rear-mounted engine. It was cheaper to manufacture than the heavier British tanks and could be transported by lorries behind the lines. The FT equipped the 1st Provisional Tank Brigade, what would become the 304th Tank Brigade, commanded by Lt. Colonel George S. Patton. The American FT’s saw action for the in September 1918, at the Battle of St. Mihiel.
144 US FT’s took part in the battle and both the tanks and crews performed well. The Five of Hearts, a 37mm-armed FT with the 344th Tank Battalion took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and while making an isolated attack on German positions in support of bogged down US Infantry, the tank was immobilised and its gun mantle jammed by enemy small arms fire. The tank’s commander Sergeant Arthur Snyder recalled:
“My wounded driver kept filling pistol clips and I produced as much fire as possible with our pistols and the crippled 37mm. I paid more attention to the volume of fire than its accuracy for I fear the enemy would close in if the volume diminished. Three machine guns were set up at very close range, but just out of range of our piece with its limited elevation. The fragmentation of our shells did afford some protection but I could not train this fire on the German field piece. The constant hammering of these machine guns at close range was terrific. The hinges on the doors could not stand up under it for long, but it was the mushroom ventilator on top of the turret that gave way. I was hit in the back of my head with fragments of it and bullet splinters.”
Luckily for Snyder the German infantry made no attempt to rush the tank, content to pepper it from a distance, and they quickly retreated when infantry from the 16th Infantry arrived.
In terms of protection Snyder felt that “the armor plate on those old French Renaults was good, but when you came to close quarters the splinters from bullets hitting around the vision slits did considerable damage.” Two of Snyder’s drivers were badly wounded one by bullet splash splinters and the other in the throat.
The M1917 was manufactured by the Van Dorn Iron Works, the Maxwell Motor Co., and the C.L. Best Co. Of the original wartime order for over 4,000 tanks, in total just 952 M1917s were produced. 375 of these are believed to have been equipped with 37mm M1916 cannons, while 526 armed with Marlin M1917 tank machine guns. The remaining 50 were outfitted as unarmed signal tanks.
The M1917 has a number of small differences from the FT. Its exhaust is located on left rather than right side of the tank. A new US-designed gun mount and mantlet was used. Solid steel idler wheels at the front of the tank rather than the spoked type used by the French. Additional vision slits for the driver were added and a bulkhead sectioned off the engine from the cab. Like their French cousins the M1917 was manned by a two-man crew, the driver and the commander who also acted as loader and gunner.
A different, American-made, engine – a water-cooled 4 cylinder engine built by the Buda Engine company was used. Developing 42 horsepower, it had more torque than its French counterpart but was no faster, with a top speed of between just 6 – 8 miles per hour. The tank weighed just over 7 US tons and was 16.5 feet long and 7ft 7” tall. Its armour was 0.25″ to 0.6″ (6.35mm to 15.25mm) thick – slightly thinner than its French counterpart. The majority of the tanks were armed with machine guns, using the .30 calibre M1917 Marlin tank machine gun, rather than the French Hotchkiss. The ‘male’ or cannon armed tanks had a 37mm gun and carried more than 230 shells for the gun. The Marlin was later supplanted by the early iteration of the M1919 Browning tank machine gun. 50 command and signals tanks were also built, these unarmed tanks were similar to the French TSF (télégraphie sans fil) and fitted with a wireless radio.
Perhaps the M1917s most impressive feat stemmed from a publicity stunt in April 1919, when a M1917 climbed Pikes Peak, a mountain in Colorado. At the time the road up Pikes Peak was said to be the ‘World’s Highest Motor Drive’, a single tank was driven up the mountain as part of fund raising efforts for the fifth, and final, round of Liberty Bond sales, which hoped to raise $4.5 billion from the sale of government bonds. We’ll have a separate looking at this exploit at a later date!
None of the M1917s reached the frontline but many were used a props for selling war bonds – in this photo dated April 1918, a platoon of M1917s is seen after they arrived at Camp Meritt by train, they are about to be painted up in camouflage for a Victory Loan parade in New York.
After the war the M1917, along with just over 200 French-made FTs brought back from France, formed the backbone of the US Tank Corps. In these photos we can see several tanks taking part in a mock-battle with supporting infantry at Camp Meade in May 1919. This photo show men learning to service their vehicles at Camp Meade, in December 1919.
But by 1921, the Corps had lost its independence and been all but disbanded with the Infantry given control of America’s tank force. A handful of the M1917s were deployed briefly overseas with the USMC, during the 1920s, but the M1917 was resigned to training as it became increasingly obsolete. They were finally removed from service in the mid-1930s. When World War Two broke out the remaining M1917s were sold to Canada and were reportedly used to help train the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps before many of them were finally scrapped.
Footage courtesy of the US National Archives (source)
Camp Colt to Desert Storm: The History of U.S. Armored Forces, G.F. Hofmann & D.A. Starry (1999) Tanks: 100 Years of Evolution, R. Ogorkiewicz (2015)
Light Tank M1917, Tank Encylopedia, C. Moore, (source)
The Saga of the Five of Hearts, Armor, July-Aug. 1988, Maj. Gen. W.R. Kraft Jr. (source)
When the US entered World War One in April 1917, the US Army had no experience with tanks. American observers in France had reported on the early Allied uses of tanks at the Somme and American enthusiasm for the new machines was lacking in many of the Army’s upper echelons.
This began to change after the arrival of General Pershing and his staff in France, ahead of the American Expeditionary Force. Pershing directed that a Tank Corps be raised and detailed a number of officers, including the enterprising young officer, Captain George S. Patton, to establish a training ground and report on how best to deploy tanks.
Patton was instrumental in shaping the US Army’s early tank doctrine, he wrote a highly detailed report on how to deploy tanks to maximum effect. Patton, a cavalry officer by training, admired the French Renault FT’s speed, mobility and manoeuvrability but felt the two doctrines of French light and British Heavy tanks could be combined. In December 1917, Colonel Samuel Rockenbach was placed in command of the new, but still tank-less, US Tank Corps.
Britain and France shared their tank designs with the US but in early 1918, the American automobile giant, Ford, began work on an American light tank. The result was a light and mobile tank weighing in at 3 US tons (or 2.7 metric tons). Sometimes referred to as the Ford 3-Ton Tank or the Ford Model 1918. Ford hoped to produce the new tank using as many off the shelf components, from their automobile and truck production, as they could. So the new tank was powered by two 4-cylinder Ford Model T engines, in theory developing around 40 horsepower, with a maximum speed of 8 mph and an operational range of just over 30 miles. Taking cues from the French FT, the M1918’s engines, fuel tank and transmission were mounted in a compartment at the rear of the tank. Some sources note that the tank was developed with the assistance of the Van Dorn Iron Works, in Cleveland, Ohio, presumably assisting in the manufacture of bullet-proof steel plates making up the tank’s armour.
Contemporary photographs show the prototype during assembly in one of Ford’s Detroit workshops. We’re extremely lucky to have these photos showing the development process, they show that the initial shape and layout changed very little but some important changes were made as the tank was tested. The photographs date to April 1918, suggesting that by late spring the first prototype was assembled.
Like the French FT, the M1918 had a two-man crew but was significantly lighter weighing 4 tons less. The Ford could reach speeds of up to 8 mph while the slower FT could achieve around 5 mph. The Ford M1918 was 14 feet (or 4.3m) long, making it slightly shorter than the FT. The Ford’s armour was much thinner than its French counterpart, while this helped with weight, it would have left the crew vulnerable. It had just 7 to 13mm of armour compared to the FT’s 8 to 22mm. The tank’s tracks were also extremely narrow, and while the tank was light, this could have conceivably led to issues with getting bogged down in thick mud. Some of the contemporary footage of the prototype shows it with wider, more practical looking, tracks but the later pre-production models seem to have reverted to the narrower tracks.
The earlier prototype Ford tank did not have a gun fitted and the front doors for both driver and gunner were hinged at the sides, rather than at the top. Some of the contemporary footage shows the gun-less prototype becoming trapped nose-up, at an almost 90-degree angle, after trying to cross a relatively narrow trench. To prevent this we see that the later tanks were subsequently fitted with a ‘trench tail’.
In terms of armament, the Ford was also limited with a single .30 calibre machine gun, mounted on the right side of the hull in an armoured casement. The casement doesn’t appear to have a prominent sight aperture or vision slit for the driver so how the gun was aimed is unclear. The gun also appears to have a very limited firing arc compared to the FT’s turret mounted gun, which could rotate a full 360 degrees. It is unclear exactly what sort of gun was going to be mounted in the tank although an Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié (also used in British tanks) may have been an option. Another more likely option would have been the specially-developed M1919 air-cooled Browning Machine Gun, which had been specially developed for tank mounting. Judging from the size of the armoured housing for the gun, however, it may have been intended to mount the M1918 Marlin Tank Machine Gun, which had large aluminium cooling fins.
The Ford had a two-man crew with the driver on the left and a gunner on the right. The driver also had a cupola, with vision slits, on the roof of the tank which allowed him to drive when the hatch was closed. But this must have been difficult to see out of unless the driver changed his driving position.
The tank had an exposed front axle connecting its large front track idlers, this would have been susceptible to damage from enemy fire and from hitting obstacles. At the rear is the drive sprocket and along the body of the tank are two sets of three suspension wheels with two track support rollers above. Note that the support rollers are mounted on a truck leaf spring, another example of off-the-shelf parts being utilised. This represents a change from the single support roller seen in the earlier prototype
The later footage shows as many as half a dozen pre-production tanks on the move during a demonstration at Ford’s plant in Detroit. We get a good feel for how fast and manoeuvrable the Ford tanks were. But they also struggle to navigate some of the more difficult terrain and don’t appear to have the power or traction to tackle some of the steeper hills or ditches. The tanks much have been difficult to steer, likely using a pair of clutch levers to control the tracks on either side. Two tanks even collide with each other and there’s a couple of other near misses as the Ford’s navigate around the test area. One tank becomes stuck requiring two others to pull it clear of the bank.
The War Department was eager to get tanks into production ordering 15,000 M1918s from Ford, with 500 to be delivered in January 1919 with production continuing at 100 per day after that. An initial batch of 15 were ordered for testing. At least one of these was sent to France for evaluation before the end of the war. The French were unimpressed finding it inferior to the FT, they did consider it as an artillery tractor for the French 75. The US also considered the Ford for this role and some photograph captions from early 1919, of Battery A, 140th Field Artillery, describes it as a ‘3-ton tractor’ for pulling “the new American 75mm split trail gun”, the M1916. These photographs also prove that more than one M1918 reached France.
The Ford tanks were not well regarded by those with practical experience, with the men of the US Tank Corps in France not consulted about the tank before it was ordered by the Ordnance Department. The war ended before large scale production of the M1918 could begin, With just 15 M1918s built we’re lucky to have this much film of it in action. Today only two of the Ford light tanks survive in US Army collections.
In reality the M1918 was more a Machine Gun Carrier than a tank. How effective it might have been is a matter of speculation. It’s difficult to say, while the French may not have felt it was an improvement over the FT, it certainly showed enough merit for the War Department to make a large order. Its narrow tracks, lack of protection and minimal armament may have proved to be problems. The M1918’s real legacy is that it while the US had built other tanks during the war, including the M1917, a copy of the FT, and the MKVIII heavy tank, in collaboration with the British, the M1918 Ford was the first truly American designed and built tank.
The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Military Vehicles, I.V. Hogg & J. Weeks (1980) The Complete Guide to Tanks & Armoured Fighting Vehicles, G. Forty & J. Livesey, (2012) Camp Colt to Desert Storm: The History of U.S. Armored Forces, G.F. Hofmann & D.A. Starry (1999) The Machine Gun: History, Evolution, and Development of Manual, Automatic, and Airborne Repeating Weapons, G.M Chinn (1951)