Thursday, August 13, 2015
In September 1939, Belgium was not a negligible or token force. It held the seventh place in armored strength in Europe, just after Poland and the Czech Republic. This force was constricted by a limited budget, the result of the long-run 1930 financial crisis, and to be first and foremost a purely defensive force, according to the "non-provocation" policy of 1936 regarding the Kingdom relations with bordering Nazi Germany. This very firm neutral position was also required to keep at bay ever-present tensions between the two very different cultural majorities of Belgium, the Walloons, Catholics, related to the French, and the Flemish, Protestants, and culturally nearer to the low countries and Germany. This was accompanied however by energic measures such as a 15% defense budget increase, the national service military training being stretched from 8 to 12 months and modernization of all fortifications, highly rated by military experts in 1939.
Belgian armored forces were spread into several cyclist border units (notably the elite "chasseurs ardennais"), cavalry and infantry units. The fully motorized ones were supposed to act as "flying units" to defend major communications lines between five strategical strong points like the Namur and Liege forts, and above all, Eben-Emael. These thoroughly modernized fortifications -in the Maginot line style- were designed to serve as a buffer against German attacks, repelling assaults for at least five days, and at best two weeks, a delay thought long enough to allow the French and their British allies to move into place and built their own defensive line, closing the gap between the north sea and the Maginot Line itself -with the notable exception of the so-thought impassable Ardennes forest.
For these reasons, Belgium never tried to acquire or build medium tanks until 1936 -seen as an offensive or provocative gesture by the politicians. The bulk of the armored forces comprised towed AT guns, mostly those of the excellent SA-FRC (which stands for "Fonderie Royale de Canons") 47 mm (1.85 in), or modele 1931, of which over 750 were delivered to infantry and cavalry units. Tractors were of the Vickers "Utility Tractor" type, unarmed, small, stocky, of which two types largely produced, for cavalry and infantry. Their armor, equipment and speed differed accordingly. British Vickers designs also formed the basis of the two main Belgian tanks type. The British Vickers Mark VI served for the light scout tanks (T15) and Vickers unarmed tractors as tank hunters (T13) which evolved through three variants and formed the backbone of the Belgian antitank units. These were complemented -until 1939- by a handful of vintage FT 18s (a Belgian slightly modified FT 17 of WWI fame), scheduled for replacement by the recent ACG-1, of which only a dozen were delivered in time.
T15 light tank
The T15 was a version of the British "Commercial Light Tank Vickers Carden-Loyd 4 ton". They had a two-man crew and were armed with a 13.2 mm French Hotchkiss machine gun mounted in the turret. A total of 42 of these tanks were assigned to Belgian units.
T13 tank destroyer, models B1, B2, and B3
The T13 series was very similar to the T15; the only major difference was that the main armament was a 47 mm anti-tank gun instead of a machine gun. They were regarded as tank destroyers; except the first model (B1) all had fully rotating turrets.
Total production for the T13:
T13 B1 - 35 produced.
T13 B2 - 14 produced. These started their life as unarmed Carden Loyd tankettes which were modified and equipped with a turret with a C.47 gun in 1936.
T13 B3 150 produced. Entered service in 1937.
The Wehrmacht operated some captured T13s during the first years of the war, as the T13 had a more powerful main gun than the Panzer I and Panzer II, common German tanks in the early war years.
There is a T13 B2 on display at Brussels Tank Museum.
The Renault AMC 35 tank, also designated ACG1, was armed with a 47 mm gun and a coaxial machine gun. 25 of these tanks were ordered although only 12 were accepted into the Belgian army due to supply problems. The Belgian ACG1 and the AMC 35 had different turrets. The Belgian Army disliked the layout of the AMC 35 turret, and so designed their own. Instead of waiting for the other tanks to arrive the Belgian army created the T-13 B3, also armed with a 47 mm C.47 gun. Eight of the ACG1 were in front line units at the start of the 1940 campaign. The ACG1 had a reputation for mechanical difficulties which caused a dispute with the French manufacturer, and slowed deliveries until the problems were solved. The 47 mm main gun in the ACG1 was the same anti-tank gun then in service with the Belgian Army.
Renault FT tank
The Belgian army had 75 Renault FT tanks (of World War I vintage) at the start of World War II. The Belgian Army had two types of FT tanks, the Char canon armed with a short 37 mm Puteaux SA-18 gun and the Char mitrailleuse armed with a machine gun. Unlike the French Army, the Belgian Army had withdrawn all FT tanks from front line service before World War II. They remained in storage depots during the 1940 campaign.
Belgian forces in May 1940
In May 1940 the Belgian army could deploy 22 divisions (mostly infantry ones - 100,000 men for the standing army, 440,000 mobilized recruits in 1939, and 900,000 total with reserves in May 1940, an astonishing feat for a 8 million population) and about 200 AFVs spread into "penny packets" among divisions, and nearly 700 towed antitank guns either by artillery tractors, trucks or Ford-based Marmon Herrington armored cars. Total strength was only 2 fully mechanized divisions, one armored regiment and two motorized divisions. Following the Mechelen incident (a plane crash involving a German Major in Belgium near Meuse river), German plans detailing upcoming operations were found, and brought to the Allies. As it was, this plan called for a simple invasion trough Belgium, targeting western coast harbors, virtually repeating 1914 Schlieffen plan. However both King Leopold and General Raoul Van Overstraeten, his aide de camp, suspected some trick and rather firmly thought a wide encirclement using the Ardennes forest was more probable, but General Gamelin ignored the warnings and stuck to his Dyle plan. The Belgian army was supposed to hold the Antwerp - Liege - Namur line on the borders as long as possible to allow the main French forces to take positions, and withdraw afterwards to make junction with French forces, theoretically presenting a narrower front, easier to defend
The need for a more powerful armoured vehicle - the tankettes being incapable of an actual combat role - forced Poland to turn her attention to a further Vickers product, namely the Vickers-Armstrong Six-ton tank, (Vickers Mark 'E'), which was soon to gain a worldwide reputation for a whole decade. In fact, between 1930 and 1939, Vickers-Armstrong Ltd sold over 190 machines of that type (tanks and tractors) to foreign countries - Bolivia, Bulgaria, China, Finland, Greece, Japan, Portugal, Russia and Thailand (Siam) - but the largest order came from Poland with a total of 50 (other sources give 38) tanks with either the single and twin turret arrangement.
The fact that the Vickers-Armstrong Six-ton tank was well within the capacity of the Polish technology, and as it offered some potential for further development, the PZI design bureau was entrusted with the study of a homemade copy. Subsequently PZI produced the 7 TP, a 9ton twin turreted tank which was to be a considerable step forward in design over the Vickers original. At first, the Armstrong-Siddeley engine of the Six-ton was replaced by a licence-built Saurer 6-cylinder diesel engine which developed 110hp, so making the Polish 7 TP the first diesel-powered tank to reach production status.
The 7 TP armour was also 4mm thicker than the Six-ton armour. The first 7 TP to be built by PZI left the works in I934 and production continued at a slow tempo up to 1939. While the production of the modified twin turret model 7 TP was proceeding slowly, it was decided to introduce a single version carrying a Bofors gun (the turret being manufactured by this same concern). This variant appeared in 1937, but the production was restricted by the difficulties of making armour plates and of procuring the turrets from Sweden. Afterwards, in 1939, some quibbles about its unsuitable armour thickness brought PZI to evolve a heavier variant with an improved engine, welded armour thickened up to 40mm in front, a strengthened suspension, wider tracks and a turret with a rear overhang which could accommodate both transmitter and receiver radio sets. The up-armoured 7 TP, which now weighed 11 tons, did not have time to go beyond the prototype or, at best, pre-production stage.