Friday, 5 May 2017

LT vz. 38: Bestseller from Prague

After the victory in the light tank tender for the Czechoslovakian army, CKD received a contract to build its P-II tank, adopted by the army under the index LT vz. 34. Another tender was declared soon after, which resulted in disappointment for CKD. The military did not like the light P-II-a tank. This time, Skoda celebrated victory, whose S-II tank was adopted as the LT vz. 35. However, CKD still managed to grab half of the contract for building the LT vz. 35.

In parallel, the company was working on tanks for export, where it saw much greater success. The work on export tanks led to the LT vz. 38, Czechoslovakia's best pre-war tank. CKD's creation became the most numerous and widely known Czechoslovakian tank. Nevertheless, it appeared far too late to help its own country's army.

From Exported Roots

On September 10th, 1935, the Iranian delegation in Prague signed an agreement to purchase 50 AH-IV tankettes and 50 light TNH tanks from CKD. At the time, this was one of the largest tank export deals in history. CKD's position improved greatly, and even the loss of the II-a category tank design didn't leave it without a large order.

Investing in foreign ties paid high interest. The Romanians came after the Iranians, also interested in AH-IV tankettes. The modified version of the vehicle, AH-IV-R, was adopted by the Romanian army as the R-1. The Swedes also took interest. 45 AH-IV-Sv tankettes were used by the Swedish army under the index Strv m/37. At the start of WWII, this was Sweden's most numerous armoured vehicle.

Diagram of the Praga TNH-S/LT vz.38 chassis

This large order let CKD get close to many Swedish manufacturers. The cooperation between Czechoslovakia and Sweden began earlier, but this was in the realm of armament. The Swedes were interested in Skoda cannons. This time, CKD was looking at Swedish products. The issue was that Czechoslovakian light tank engines, designed for Praga trucks, were insufficiently powerful.

The Swedish Scania-Vabis company produced an improved version of the Scania-Vabis 335 truck since 1936. It used the Scania-Vabis 1664 7.75 L 140 hp engine. The Swedish military was the first to consider these engines. In 1936, they were making a decision about the purchase of Landsverk L-60 tanks. The Bussing-NAG L8V-G engine was not liked by the military, since it came from abroad. The Scania-Vabis 1664 took is place. The reworked tank, indexed L-60-S, was adopted as the Strv m/38.

CKD's designers took interest in this tank. Compact and powerful, it was perfect for installation in export light tanks.

Inside the turret.

While CKD was conquering foreign markets, Skoda was not doing so well. Even though there were foreign buyers for the LT vz. 35, the Czechoslovakian army's order was going poorly. Massive amounts of complaints arose in the summer of 1937. Design defects were uncovered, but poor quality parts were also often the problem.

The issues were so serious that the order for 103 tanks of the third series was delayed. The deal was only approved on November 7th, 1937, but the amount was reduced. As a result, each of the manufacturers only built 149 LT vz. 35 tanks, although the army initially was planning to order about 600 tanks of this type.

The TNH-S looked like this in 1940. The gun was removed and replaced with a dummy from the Praga TNH.

The decision to cancel an order for 300 LT vz. 35 tanks coincided with the announcement by the Ministry of Defense of new requirements for a light tank on October 30th, 1937. Both companies decided to bid with the export versions of their tanks. Skoda presented the S-II-aR, the same LT vz. 35, but modified for the Romanians. As for CKD, they had to build a tank from scratch. The experimental TNH prototype was sent to Iran, where it was used as a training aid.

This was probably for the best, since progress did not stand still, and neither did the military's demands. The TNH was not entirely satisfactory, especially when it came to armour. Using the existing designs for export tanks, CKD's design bureau, under supervision from Aleksei Surin, quickly designed a new tank. Mild steel was used to make building it cheaper, but the budget was still impressive: 1,020,000 Czech kroner, a quarter more than the price of a mass production tank.

These obstacles were not an issue for the TNH-S.

The improved tank, indexed THN-S, entered trials in late 1937. Overall, its design was the same as the TNH, with some nuances. The new tank used the Praga TNHPS engine, a copy of the Scania-Vabis 1664. The new engine put out 125 hp, almost a third more than the TNH engine. The thickness of the armour, 25 mm, was at the standard level of light Czechoslovakian tanks. The length of the tank grew by 5 cm.

The hull gunner/radio operator station changed. Like the German PzIV, the front plate of the turret platform was moved out. This allowed a hatch to be installed in the roof. The observation devices were also improved.

The same tank from the left side.

The tank entered trials with the dummy turret from the TNH. This stage of the trials only tested the mobility of the tank, so the turret was not as important. A 380 kg dummy gun was also used. To start, the TNH-S went through 550 km of factory trials. The proving grounds trials followed at the army grounds in Milovice, where the tank arrived on January 18th, 1938. The tank received a temporary registration number: P-10.074.

Six days later, another tank, the P-II-R arrived, with the registration number P-10.071. This was a backup plan, a further evolution of the LT vz. 34. It had the same engine and Praga-Wilson gearbox as the TNH-S. However, it quickly became clear that the tank built with export solutions was better.

Further trials of the TNH-S continued at the testing facility near Vyskov. The tankers that tested it were already familiar with CKD's design. They already tested the Iranian TNH tank, and were satisfied with it. The new tank turned out to be even better. The TNH-S prototype drove for 5000 km in total.

The tank returned to the CKD factory in Liben in the end of March of 1938, where it was equipped with a turret from the LT vz. 35 with a 37 mm A7 Skoda cannon. The tank also received a number of improvements that were designed as a result of trials. The frequently overheating Praga-Wilson received an oil cooling system.

Skoda's tanks traveled from 2814 km to 3419 km, revealing a number of drawbacks and defects. By that time, CKD's tank drove for 5584 km without a single serious breakdown. It's not surprising that the military was leaning towards the TNH-S. The tank was sent to an artillery proving grounds in Glboku (Slovakia), where the A8 gun was tested. A rate of fire of 7 RPM was achieved. Then the tank visited the Skoda factory in Pilsen, where it fired 470 rounds over 3 days at the Bolevec proving grounds. 

Well designed engine access hatches allowed one to work on the engine without having to stand in the mud.

The tank took its final shape on July 1st, 1938. By that time, the tank received a new turret, similar to the one used on the LT vz. 34 and LT vz. 35. The commander's cupola changed the most. The periscope moved from the hatch to the turret roof, the observation devices changed. The turret hatch was redone: it became simpler, and the air intake between the hatch and commander's cupola was removed.

The vehicle was presented at a proving grounds in Kij. The commission included Generals Vozenilek and Netik, representing the first and second departments of the Ministry of Defense respectively. As a result of the presentation, the commission unanimously accepted the tank into service as the Lehký tank vz.38, or LT vz. 38 for short. The A8 gun was also accepted into service under the index 3.7 cm kanon PÚV vz.38.

Before a Great Tragedy

The acceptance of the LT vz. 38 into service happened at a time of great tension between Germany and Czechoslovakia. German forces entered Austria on the night from March 11th to March 12th, 1938. The Austrian army did not resist. The Austrian industry was fully integrated into the German war machine.

The situation in the western part of Czechoslovakia went differently. Germany insisted on independence of the Sudetenland, where Germans made up a significant part of the population. The Wehrmacht composed an invasion plan by May 20th. It was never carried out, but tensions continued to rise. Czechoslovakia executed partial mobilization, and military exercises were held in the summer, including massed use of tanks. Great Britain, formally an ally of Czechoslovakia, pressured its government starting in May. We all know how that ended.

The first mass produced LT vz. 38. It was used by the German army under the index Pz.Kpfw. 38(t) Ausf. A.

Preparations for mass production of the LT vz. 38 began in April of 1938. It was already clear who the winner of the tender will be. On April 24th, CKD presented the calculations for the cost of building 150 tanks, starting production in February of 1939. This was the first batch of tanks, and at least as many would be ordered later.

The only thing the military didn't like about the tank was its cost. 640,180 Czech kroner ($25,600) was the cost of one tank. This was about a third more than an LT vz. 35. Naturally, the military wished to lower the price. To be fair, this was not so bad. The export price of a T-26 tank at the time was $20,000, and the price of a BT-5 was $30,000.

Negotiations about reducing the price lasted for two months, but it was impossible to reduce it drastically. The armament and mobility of the tank were superior to the LT vz. 35, and its expensive components, such as the gearbox or engine, were clearly better than those on Skoda tanks. The customer managed to have the price reduced, but not by a lot. Contract č.j.26300 V/3.odd.8, signed on July 22nd, 1938, obligated CKD to deliver 150 tanks in two batches. 100 tanks from the first batch would be built with armour from POLDI Hütte in Kladno and cost 620,146 kroner apiece. 50 tanks with armour from VHHT (Vítkovické horní a hutní těžířstvo) in Vitkovice cost 619,570 kroner each.

This price did not include the armament. Skoda charged 103,500 kroner for each 3.7 cm kanon PÚV vz.38.

A rail antenna was a stock element of the LT vz. 38.

CKD's factory in Liben was chosen as the place to build the tank. The LT vz. 34 and other tanks from the company were built there. The Praga factory, a producer of trucks and cars, supplied engines and gearboxes. The first tanks were awaited in late 1938, but due to the increasing tensions the army was ready to buy out the light LTP tanks that were meant for the Peruvian army.

After the Munich Agreement, the rate of the work slowed. Nevertheless, the first sets of armour arrived from Kladno in mid-November. VHHT delayed its shipments: the first sets arrived in late winter of 1939. The first ten LT vz. 38 were ready on May 15th, 1939. However, they had no armament: as usual, Skoda was late with its shipments. Gun or no gun, these tanks could not change the course of history. Czechoslovakia's fate was sealed in Munich in the fall of 1938.

Not up to our standards

After the Munich Agreement, the Czechoslovakian army radically changed its behaviour. Previously, a number of its developments were kept secret. Now, knowing that there was no point in reinforcing the army, the government allowed its arms manufacturers to pursue foreign markets more aggressively. It did not lose out, as 3% of any foreign deal was kept by the treasury.

All this applied to the LT vz. 38, which was similar to CKD's export tanks. The TNH-S was used as a demonstration unit. It was inspected at the factory on July 11th, and it turned out that 7740 km of driving did not significantly wear down its parts. After repairs and a small modernization, the tank, later indexed TNH-P, was ready for demonstrations to foreign buyers.

TNH-P during trials at Farnborough, March of 1939.

Oddly enough, the British were the first to show interest. Negotiations between Alvis Straussler and Skoda about licensing the LT vz. 35 for production began in September of 1938. After the veil of secrecy was lifted, it was clear that Czechoslovakia had a much more interesting tank. Negotiations with CKD began in late 1938.

On February 28th, 1939, the TNH-P and Lieutenant Boguslav Kolar (he supervised the LT vz. 38 project on behalf of the Ministry of Defense) departed for England. The tank was fully equipped, aside from ammunition. The tank had a radio with two antennas (rod and rail). It was also equipped in line with other export tanks. These tanks were painted in light gray, with the observation devices and armament highlighted in black. Like the Praga LTP and other export tanks, it had a set of side lights and a large headlight in the front. Rubber mudflaps were also used. Without ammunition, the tank weighed 9.15 tons, or 9.7 tons with ammunition.

The vehicle had many differences from the production LT vz. 38.

The TNH-P was delivered to the Mechanisation Experimental Establishment (MEE) in Farnborough. The tank drove for 466 km, 165 of them off-road. During trials, the tank was easy to control and very maneuverable. This makes the verdict appear rather odd.

"The attempt to create a small vehicle with observation devices that are protected from bullets resulted in a cramped vehicle, whose mobility is not up to our standards."

The mounting of the toolkit was also different from the LT vz. 38.

One can only laugh at such a conclusion. Recall what tanks were built in Great Britain at the time. The Cruiser Tank Mk.III and its improved version, the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV, had the closest characteristics to the TNH-P. Except for power to weight ratio, these tanks had no advantage over the TNH-P. With comparable armour (the British tanks were slightly behind), the armament of both tanks was worse than on the Czechoslovakian one. It was also hard to call British tanks roomy. The British cruisers also suffered from constant breakdowns, while the TNH-P ran like clockwork.

A year later, these tanks came face to face on the battlefield near Abbeville, and everything became clear. The request made by the British Military Mission in 1942 is comical in the face of the verdict. A Pz 38(t) with turret number 543 was one of the captured German tanks that the Soviets sent by British request in 1942. This tank from the 19th Tank Division was knocked out on October 16th, 1941, in battle near Sergeevka. Later, it was repaired at factory #82 (Moscow).

Slovakia accepts its first LT-38, fall of 1940.

The experimental TNH-P returned to German occupied Czechia. By that time, Slovakia was formally an independent country. As for the mass produced LT vz. 38, they were in the hands of new masters. The production of the LT vz. 38 for the Germans is best left for another article, but let's talk about the production of tanks for Slovakia.

In 1940, as a German ally, the country had the right to buy some number of tanks for its army. This, of course, included the LT vz. 38, which already carried the name Pz 38(t) Ausf. A. The Slovakians tested the TNH-P prototype. The gun was replaced and removed with a dummy of the 37 mm A 4 beta gun.

Slovak tanks on parade. Martin, March 14th, 1941. As you can see, these tanks do not have rail antennae.

Overall, 10 tanks were ordered, indexed LT-38 in the Slovak army. The tanks built for Slovakia were almost the same as the LT vz. 38 that would have been built for the Czechoslovakian army. The tanks received serial numbers from V-3000 to V-3009. In June of 1941, these tanks participated in the invasion of the USSR. 6 of them were lose in battle.

LT-38 V-3000, destroyed during battle for Lipovets, July 22nd, 1941.

One of the original LT vz. 38 tanks survived to this day. This tank, with serial number 8, saw battle, and has a mark from a Soviet anti-tank rifle. After the end of WWII, it was accepted into the Czechoslovakian army under the index LT-38/37. Today, it can be seen at the Military museum Lešany. Recently, the vehicle underwent a round of restoration, where it was returned to its original configuration.

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