In April 1919, a lone US-built M1917 light tank climbed over 11,000 feet up a mountain in Colorado. We are lucky enough to have some original photos and footage of the tank’s climb up Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains.
The tank with ‘Pikes Peak or Bust’ painted on its hull (US National Archive)
Why was a tank driving up a mountain?
Simply put the expedition was a publicity stunt to help raise cash to pay off America’s war debt. By 1919 the cost of US involvement in World War One had reached $32 billion – that’s around $547 billion today.
The purpose of the stunt was to encourage Americans to purchase ‘Victory Liberty’ War Bonds which would help pay off some of the debt accrued by the war. This was the fifth, and final, round of Liberty Bond sales. The drive began in mid-April 1919, and aimed to sell $4.5 billion of government bonds.
The tank arrived in Colorado Springs at the beginning of April and on the 14th a crowd of nearly 1,000 people watched Mrs W.H.R. Stote, the chairwoman of Colorado Springs’ Victory Liberty loan committee, christened the tank ‘Little Zeb’ – after explorer Brigadier Zebulon Pike – who led an expedition that attempted to climb the mountain in 1806)
Mrs Stote reportedly declared “I charge you with making the trip to the summit. As the Victory Loan shall not fail, you must make it to the top!” The tank’s commander Sgt. A.H. Worrell, told The Colorado Springs Gazette that he had “driven tanks over trees and trenches on the western front and I am betting we get to the top.”
The road up to the summit of Pikes Peak, photographed in 1934 (US National Archive)
At the time the 19 mile road up to Pikes Peak was said to be the ‘World’s Highest Motor Drive’ with the summit at 14,115 feet (or 4,302m). Cpl. Howard Brewer, the tank’s driver told reporters “I know we can climb it. Given time, the tank could go to the top of the world.” In terms of publicity having the tank make it up the mountain would certainly have been quite a feat.
On the front of the tank’s hull the words ‘Pike’s Peak or bust’ were painted in white – this is a reference to a phrase coined by prospector’s during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of the 1860s.
The tank on the road up Pikes Peak (Pikes Peak District Library)
The tank was driven by Corporal Howard Brewer and tended by a crew of mechanics and support vehicles. The road which climbed the mountain was unsurfaced and had only been completed in 1916. The tank’s ascent began on April 15, and incredibly over the next two days the tank climbed to 11,440 feet, 13 miles along the road and through several deep snow drifts, reportedly up to 20-feet tall, before a track plate snapped. After repairs the tank and support convoy pressed on – but the tank never made it to the summit. Not because of mechanical failure but unbelievably because it was needed to appear in other Colorado towns as part of the Victory Loan drive.
While the tank may not have reached the very top of the mountain, it unsurprisingly became a record breaker – setting the first elevation record for tanks. Western Union claimed that it also set a distance record for continuous distance travelled and penetrated the farthest into the snow than any other vehicle had ever done at that time of year – battling snow drifts up to 20 feet tall. While the US-built M1917 was never tested in battle the drive up the mountain proved it was a capable, hardy vehicle – demonstrating the tank’s abilities.
Various photos and contemporary footage taken from the US National Archives (source)
Additional photos held by the The Manitou Springs Historical Society (source)
‘Army’s Tank Assault on Pikes Peak Was About More Than Being Macho’, The Gazette, M.L. Cavanaugh, (source)
U.S. Economy in World War I, Economic History Association, (source)
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)
More of a gun carrier than a tank, as the vehicle was open topped, it was, however, equipped with a 75mm field gun. During the footage it not only seamlessly operates on both land and water, it also fires four rounds as it crosses a body of water at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Very little is known about the vehicle but it is believed to be the second of three amphibious vehicles developed by Christie during the 1920s. None of the vehicles were purchased by the US military and no major international orders were made either.
The vehicle itself is manned by two people during the demonstration, presumably one steering while the other mans the gun. It appears to have narrow tracks over its four sets of wheels and a pair of propellers at the rear.
Demonstration of Ordnance Materiel at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, 1920-1926, US National Archives, (source)
While I was doing some research in the US National Archives’ catalogue, for footage of the Ford M1918 Light Tank, I came across this snippet of film. As we saw in our earlier video on the M1918 the tank struggled to deal with some terrain. In this video we see that at one point the prototype 3-ton tank managed to flip over completely! Which begs the question, how many men does it take to flip a tank?
….The answer appears to be around 20! The tank was relatively light, weighing in at 3 tons, but I still don’t think think I would have been one of them men pulling the tank’s track towards them!
Development of the gun actually began before the war in 1938, but the QF 6pdr MkII Anti-Tank gun didn’t enter full production until 1942. After the evacuation from Dunkirk in the summer of 1940, and the loss of nearly 600 AT guns, it was decided to focus on the 2pdr which was then already in production. The 6pdr saw action for the first time in the Western Desert against the Afrika Korps, serving alongside its predecessor the 2pdr.
The 6pdr was a 57mm gun, firing a 57x441mmR shell effective out to 1,700 yards or 1,500m – with a rated maximum range of 5,000 yd. Unlike its predecessor the 6pdr could fire both armour piercing and high explosive rounds. The gun weighed in at 2,520 lb or just under 1,150 kg. Manned by a six man crew the gun had a vertically sliding breechblock and could fire up to 15 rounds per minute.
The 6pdr had a Hydro-pneumatic recuperator which mitigated some of the gun’s recoil. The barrel recoiled around 30 inches along its cradle immediately after firing. It was mounted on a variety of carriages with the most common being a split trail carriage with 45-degrees of traverse left and right. The 6pdr could be fired with its split trail deployed or closed. The gun could be elevated 15-degrees and depressed 5-degrees – less than its predecessor, although elevation was not a key requirement for a direct fire weapon like an anti-tank gun.
Five Marks of 6pdr were produced, the MkI development model was declared obsolete and didn’t enter production. Production of the MkII began in late 1941, it had a shorter barrel and was later replaced by the longer barrelled MkIV, which also had a single-baffle muzzle brake, one of the first British guns to have one. The MkIII and V variants had special lugs to enable them to be mounted in tanks. The first guns produced were MkIIIs, while these could be carriage mounted they were earmarked for tanks.
The MkIII Airborne carriage was designed to be lighter so it could be transported aboard gliders and aircraft. Its trail legs were jointed in order to save room and the carriage was narrower which restricted the traverse to 37-degrees left or right. The shield was also redesigned with an even smaller profile. Identifiable by its straight, rather than wavy, top edge.
The gun was aimed using a No.22C 2 or 3-power sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun, which projected through a sight box in the shield. The gunner also had an elevation wheel to his right and, unlike the 2pdr, the 6pdr used a free traverse rather than a geared wheel system. This was controlled by the gunner pushing or pulling the gun. The gun was fired by a firing lever on the left side of the breech. On the right side of the gun, an ammunition box with space for three rounds could be attached to the shield for emergency use. The gun shield consisted of two/four sections, made of bulletproof steel plate, which had a lower profile than the earlier 2pdr.
Unlike the 2pdr, the 6pdr had an array of ammunition that continued to evolve during the war. The initial armour piercing round could penetrate 70mm or 2.8in of armour at 1,600 yards / 1,500m while the Armour-Piercing Capped Ballistic Cap (APCBC) introduced in early 1943 increased this to 3.1in, while the Armour-Piercing, Discarding Sabot (APDS) shot introduced in Spring 1944, enabled it to effectively engage Tiger I and Panther frontal armour, penetrating 4.8 inches of armour at 1,500m. It is worth noting that figures on penetration vary somewhat from source to source. A high explosive shell that allowed the guns to engage non-armoured targets more effectively was introduced in 1943.
Initially used solely by the Royal Artillery’s anti-tank regiments comprising of four batteries, each with 12 guns. By 1944 an infantry division would be equipped with as many as 78 6pdrs and more than 30 heavier 17pdrs while an armoured divisions was equipped with 30 6pdrs.
The 6pdrs first saw action in North Africa proving to be highly effective against both Italian and German armour. During the Second Battle of El Alamein, 19 6pdrs were instrumental in the defence of Outpost Snipe. The 2nd Rifle Brigade and their supporting 6pdrs managed to knock out more than 55 Axis armoured vehicles including Panzer IIIs, Semovente 75/18 self-propelled guns and a number of Panzer IVs. The gunners used enfilading fire to target weaker side armour and interlocked fields of fire caught advancing tanks in killing grounds.
During Operation Market Garden, the airborne 6pdrs of the Airlanding Anti-Tank Batteries proved critical in beating back German armoured counter attacks around Oosterbeek and at the bridge in Arnhem itself. They were instrumental in repulsing the SS reconnaissance battalion which attempted to cross the bridge on the second day of the battle.
One desperate action involving a section of two 6pdrs saw three StuG-III self-propelled guns knocked out before the crews of both guns were killed. The last survivor, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield managed to man on of the guns alone and destroy a fourth StuG-III before he was killed. For his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Like its predecessor the 6pdr was also used as a vehicle gun, mounted in the Churchill Mks III & IV, Valentine Mk IX and the Crusader Mk III tanks as well as the Canadian MkII Ram and the MkII AEC Armoured Car. These vehicles had previously been designed to mount the 2pdr, but were adapted to fit the new 6pdr, in some cases having to remove a crew member from the turret to make enough room to fit the new gun. The Cavalier, Cromwell and Centaur tanks were designed to mount the new larger gun from scratch.
The first tank, equipped with a 6pdr, to go into action was the Mk III Churchill, which took part in the disastrous Dieppe Raid in August 1942. The new tanks, assigned to the 14th Army Tank Regiment (The Calgary Regiment (Tank)), were all abandoned or destroyed during the raid.
In North Africa, like the 2pdr, the heavier guns were mounted on trucks as Portees. Additionally AEC produced the Mk1 Gun Carrier or Deacon self-propelled gun – a 6pdr mounted in an armoured turret on the back of an AEC Matador truck chassis. These performed well in the desert but more enclosed country made them vulnerable and they were removed from service after the North African campaign.
It was not only tanks the 6pdr found itself mounted in. Coupled with the Molins automatic loading system it was also mounted in the RAF’s De Havilland Mosquito Mark XVIII ‘Tstetse’ and the Royal Navy’s motor torpedo boats. The Navy’s Molins auto-loader allowed the gun to fire a 6-round burst at a rate of 1 round per second. Nearly 600 naval versions of the gun, the QF 6pdr MkIIA, were produced. The RAF’s use was more short-lived with only 17 6pdr Tstetses built before 3in rockets were standardised. Despite this two Tsetse of 248 Squadron sank the German submarine U-976 in March 1944.
The US also adopted the 6pdr to replace their 37mm M3 anti-tank gun. It had initially been planned to produce the 6pdr in the US under the lend-lease agreement (4,242 guns were eventually delivered for British use) but in May 1941 the US approved the production of the 6pdr as the 57mm M1 Gun. The US M1 guns had a longer barrel than their British counterparts and many smaller differences in manufacture. The US, like Britain, mounted the gun on vehicles such as the M3 half-track – the T48 Gun Motor Carriage. By the end of the war the US has produced over 15,600 M1 anti-tank guns.
Ordnance QF 75mm was developed from the 6pdr, the 75mm guns were manufacture by boring out the 6pdr’s barrel to enable it to fire the US 75mm M46 HE round. The QF 75mm was fitted to a number of British armoured vehicles from 1943 onwards.
The 6pdr was a simpler gun to manufacture than its predecessor but despite being effective throughout the war it too was surpassed by a heavier gun, the QF 17pdr AT gun, which was developed in the early 1940s, the 17pdr was accepted for service in May 1942 but the 6pdr remained in service alongside the heavier guns.
After the end of the war the 6pdr continued to see use with a number of countries including Israel during the 1950s, the Irish Army and South Korea during the Korean War. The 6pdr remained in British service until 1951, before being replaced entirely by the 17pdr.
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)
The interwar period saw many countries under invest in their militaries, Britain was no exception. One area of equipment that went lacking for many years was adequate anti-tank weaponry. This was finally addressed in the mid-1930s with the Superintendent of Design at Woolwich arsenal developing the 2pdr anti-tank gun, which adopted in 1936.
Officially designated the ‘Ordnance QF 2-pounder Mark IX’, the 2pdr was an attempt to provide a light and mobile high velocity anti-tank gun which was relatively cheap to produce and effective against contemporary tank armour. It was also intended that the gun would itself be mounted in armoured vehicles and tanks.
In 1934 development contracts were awarded to Woolwich and the Vickers-Armstrong company for the design of carriages for the new gun, the Vickers Mark I and the Mark II from Woolwich. The Mark I had a slightly different armour shield and leg design.
These two carriages were tested against one another with trials taking place from November 1935 through to the summer of 1936. The Vickers design initially won out and the first order for 44 guns was placed in 1936. A subsequent re-evaluation of an improved version of the Woolwich carriage found it superior and the Mark II carriage was adopted.
The 2pdr fired a 40×304mmR armour piercing round which weighed 2lbs 6oz or 900g and was effective out to 1,000 yards against up to 1.5 inches of armour. It had a four man crew and was capable of firing up to 20 rounds per minute. It had an all steel barrel with a removeable breech ring and a vertically sliding breech block. The gun had an innovative and very stable three-legged collapsible platform, rather than a split-trail carriage, that also allowed the gun to be rotate through 360 degrees when its road wheels were removed. The 2pdr had a semi-automatic action with a hydraulic/hydrospring recoil system which used hydraulic fluid to absorb the gun’s recoil. This allowed the gun to be rapidly aimed and fired despite recoiling approximately 20 inches (or ~50cm).
A number of variants of the gun were developed during the war, with the original Mark IX, a simplified production model the Mark IXA, the Mark X which had a barrel made of higher-yield steel which was not autofrettaged – making it easier to manufacture and the Mark XA which was produced to lower tolerances and able to use the Littlejohn adapter.
Here’s a Royal Army Ordnance Corps training film on the 2pdr (courtesy of the AWM) in full:
Weighing around 1,800lbs or 816kg (or 4/5 of an Imperial Ton) the 2pdr was deemed to be too heavy for the infantry it had been designed for and in 1938 it was transferred to the Royal Artillery. Typically the guns were grouped together in anti-tank battalions each with three batteries made up of four troops which operated four guns each. That’s 16 guns per battery and 48 guns per battalion. Typically a battalion would be assigned to support a division. They were designed to be towed by a variety of vehicles with trucks, jeeps and Universal Carriers often being used.
The 2pdr was typically equipped with a No.24B 2x sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun. It also had an iron sight but the armoured shield had to be lowered to use it. On the right side of the breech an ammunition box, holding 16 rounds was be stored for easy access, another two boxes holding 8 rounds each could be strapped to the carriage behind the ammunition box (described as the emergency ammunition box). The rest of the ammunition in twelve more 8-round containers, giving a total of 96 rounds assigned to each gun, was carried on the truck which towed the gun.
The gunlayer sat in a small seat mounted to the carriage and the loader knelt to the right of the breech. The gun was turned by a small traversing wheel operated by the gunlayer. In low gear one rotation of the wheel would turn the gun 3 degrees, in the higher gear (activated by the right foot pedal) one rotation traversed the gun 20 degrees. This meant the gun could be traversed the full 360 degrees with 18 rotations of the wheel. The right hand wheel controlled elevation of the barrel. The gun was fired by the gunlayer using the left foot pedal or two emergency firing levers if the pedal became inoperable. While the breech would typically open automatically ejecting the spent shell casing after firing a breech handle was also located on the right side of the breech.
The gun could be brought in and out of action in under a minute, including removing or replacing the road wheels. The 2pdr could, however, be fired from its road wheels, this was described as ‘emergency action’. The wheels limited the traversing arc of the gun and turns greater than 14 degrees right or 10 degrees left had to be done by lifting the gun’s trail and turning it manually. While less stable and accurate the gun could be brought into action from being towed in less than 20 seconds.
In 1939, the British Expeditionary Force to France embarked with 509 2pdrs. During the 1940 Battle for France the 2pdr was found to be an adequate anti-tank gun. One problem identified with the 2pdr was that its armour shield, designed to protect the crew, gave it a quite high profile making it easier to spot and more difficult to conceal.
During the retreat to Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation all of the guns brought to France were lost. 60% of Britain’s 2pdr Anti-Tank guns were left behind in France, just 333 guns which hadn’t accompanied the BEF remained. Many of the guns captured after the Dunkirk evacuations entered German service under the designation 4.0cm Pak 192(e).
As the thickness of enemy armour increased the 2pdr began to struggle. The German Panzer II had 1.2 inch thick frontal armour while the Panzer III more than doubled this to 2.8 inches. On paper at least the 2pdr, firing a APHV round, could penetrate up to 2.2 inches of armour at 500 yards (460m). But in reality the Panzer III was the last German tank the 2pdr could expect to engage with a decent chance of success. With the emergence of the later mark Panzer IV, with their 50mm or 2 inch thick frontal armour, they became much less effective. If not adequately concealed gun crews could expect to be engaged by AP and high explosive rounds from the Panzers at ranges outside their effective engagement range.
Despite this, however, the 2pdr proved to be a more than a match for Japanese tanks such as the Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks, which had armour less than an inch thick. At the Battle of Muar in Malaya, in January 1942, Australian 2pdrs, of the 13th Battery, 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, knocked out six, of possibly eight or nine, Japanese tanks as they attacked up a road near Bakri. Sgt. Charles Parsons, commander of one of the guns was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Interestingly. the Australians referred to the QF 2pdr AT Gun as the “Tank Attack 2pdr” apparently a designation common to Australian anti-tank weapons as they also called the PIAT the Projector, Infantry, Tank Attack.
The 2pdr remained capable of destroying heavier Japanese tanks too, the Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tank had at 1 inch thick front armour which the 2pdr could easily penetrate at ranges of over 1,500 yards.
Lieutenant Ben Hackney of the Australian 2/29th Battalion described the engagement during the Battle of Muar:
“A couple [of tanks] attempted to turn and make a get-away but still those boys with the anti-tank guns were sending a stream of shells into them. At last they could not move forward any further and became as pill-boxes surrounded, sending fire in all directions; until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, and rendered useless and uninhabitable. There came then from the tanks sounds which resembled an Empire Day celebration as the ammunition within them burnt, and cracked with sharp bursts, and hissed, with every now and again a louder explosion as larger ammunition ignited.”
In addition to being used as a towed anti-tank gun the QF 2pdr was used in a wide range of light and cruiser tanks, it provided the main armament for the Matilda II, the MKVII Tetrach light tank, the first six Marks of the Valentine infantry tank, the MKI & MKII Crusaders, the Cruiser Marks I to IV, the Covenanter tanks and it was also used in the Australian cruiser tank, the AC1 Sentinel.
It was also widely used to arm armoured cars including the Daimler, the MKI AEC, the MKI Coventry and the Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car. In the desert it was also mounted and operated simply on the back of adapted trucks – known as Portees. Trucks built by Chevrolet, Ford or Morris were all pressed into service to create Portees. The 2pdr was deployed on its tripod on the truck bed with its wheels removed. In this setup the guns became highly mobile with the crew able to operate the gun from the truck moving in and out of action rapidly. They were widely used in North Africa with a number of medals including a Victoria Cross being awarded to men who manned them.
Second Lieutenant George Ward Gunn, J Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in November 1941 during Operation Crusader. Gunn commanded a troop of four Portee 2pdrs which engaged a German counter attach, with all but one of his guns knocked out and the remaining gun’s crew killed and the truck on fire, Lieutenant Gunn manned the gun himself, engaging the enemy at 800 yards, he managed to destroy two Panzers before he was killed.
The example we are examining began its life as a Mark IX but was subsequently upgraded into a Mk XA, capable of using a Littlejohn adaptor. The Littlejohn adapter used the squeezebore principle, the device was about a footlong with a smooth tapered bore. With the adaptor fitted to the muzzle of the 2pdr the round would be compressed by the taper going from 40mm to 30mm in diameter. This had the effect of increasing muzzle velocity giving the round a flatter trajectory and more energy. An armour-piercing, composite non-rigid round with a tungsten core was used, designated the APSV (from ‘armour-piercing super velocity’). It had the effect of almost doubling the muzzle velocity of the APSV round when compared to the original 2pdr AP shell. The adaptor was invented by Czech designer, František Janeček, the founder of the JAWA motorcycle company. The Mk I Littlejohn device entered production in January 1943 and the Mk II was approved in May 1944.
While design of the 6pdr anti-tank gun, the 2pdr’s replacement, had been completed by 1938, production of the gun did not begin until 1942. Following the huge losses at Dunkirk and with invasion believed to be imminent the decision was taken to focus on the 2pdr gun as its production line was already established. They remained in service throughout the war equipping anti-tank batteries and armoured vehicles. Over 34,000 2pdr anti-tank guns were produced between 1936 and 1944, over 11,000 of these were deployed as anti-tank guns on carriages while the rest were used in various vehicles.
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Overall Length: 135.5in or 343cm
Weight: 1,800lbs or 816kg
Action: Semi-automatic, hydrospring recoil buffer
Calibre: 2pdr or 40×304mmR
Elevation: -13 / +15 degrees
Traverse: 360 degrees
Rate of fire: 20 rounds per minute
Anti-Tank Weapons, T. Gander, (2000)
British Anti-Tank Artillery 1939-45, C. Henry (2004)
‘British equipment Losses at Dunkirk and the Post-Dunkirk Situation’, WWII Equipment.com, D. Boyd, (source)
2 Pounder Anti-Tank, Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) training film, via AWM, (source)