Chapter CVIII: Spain ’37 Part II – Hammers, Eggshells and Stiletto Knives.
The most commented on point about the tank battles of the Spanish Civil War is how un-Spanish they were. The tanks themselves were almost invariably foreign supplied, the crews had a large contingent of overseas ‘volunteers’, the supporting mechanics and engineers were generally non-Spanish and the officer corps of both sides were overflowing with ‘advisers’ of all types. Interesting as this is, its importance should not be over-stated; the tank men of Spain were not mere puppets to be directed by foreign masters, Iberian tank warfare would develop to meet very Spain concerns.
In the north of the country the tank battles would be between various Marks of British supplied Light Tanks and the Soviet manufactured T-26s. On the face of it, it was an unfair fight; five tonne machine gun armed tankettes up against ten tonne Soviet infantry tanks each with a 45mm main gun. Fortunately for the Monarchist tankers there is more to a tank that just those headline figures and more to an effective tank unit than the technical quality of the machines. On these measures the sides were more evenly matched, though it would still take a brave, or suicidal, Light Tank crew to attempt a one on one engagement.
In one of the coincidences that characterise the international arms trade, both the T-26 and the Light Tanks it would wreak havoc upon were originally Vickers designs. The T-26 had started life as the ubiquitous Vickers 6-ton, a tank famous both for it’s considerable export success and it’s spectacularly inaccurate name (at no point in any of its many variants did it ever weight 6 tons or anything close). The 6-toner had originally been designed with two types; the Type A with two machine gun turrets and the Type B with a single, two man turret mounting a Vickers 3 Pounder, a 47mm gun originally designed for the Royal Navy in the 1900s. Somewhat ironically the Soviet purchasing delegation selected the Type A twin turreted variant, influenced by the multi-turreted mania then gripping the world’s armies, and then spent the next few years slowly ‘developing’ the design into one functionally identical to the Type B they had originally rejected. It was this single turreted version, the T-26 Mod 33, that would make up the bulk of the Soviet tank forced despatched to Spain, the twin turreted variants have fallen out of favour as their limitations became apparent.
The T-26 single and twin turret variants together on operations in the Leningrad Military District. The twin turreted variant on the left is the T-26 Mod 31, the first ‘Sovietised’ variant of the 6-Toner, the main visible changes being the replacement of the Vickers 0.303” machine guns with Soviet pattern 7.62mm DTs and the subsequent modifications to the turret. Beneath the skin it was less promising; Soviet metallurgists had struggled to replicate the quality of the Vickers cemented armour plate and the less said about the efforts to copy the Armstrong Siddeley engine and running gear the better. By the time of the T-26 Mod 33 however these problems had been solved and the twin turrets replaced with a single turret mounting the 45 mm 20K mod gun. It is tempting to dismiss the entire story something of a waste of effort; the T-26 Mod 33 had identical armour, mechanicals and layout to the Type B that had been rejected and with its 45mm gun similar firepower. However many of the engineers and designers who would go on to develop the T-34 cut their teeth on ‘improving’ the T-26, making the process a valuable learning experience if nothing else.
At the start of the campaign the PSOE/PCE units could call upon just over 100 T-26s organised along Soviet infantry support lines as two battalions, each with three 15 tank strong companies, and the balance of tanks as spares and training vehicles. Those training tanks highlight the biggest problem faced by the PSOE/PCE tank force; crews. The pool of left leaning Spaniards fluent in technical Russian who could physically fit in a T-26 was quite small to begin with (though it was far larger than the pool of Soviet tank officers in Spain who were fluent in technical Spanish). Once the Soviet commissars attached to the tank battalions had weeded out the ‘politically unreliable’ and ‘doctrinally unsound’ there were precious few left. Language problems would plague the force as the Soviet trainers were unable to communicate with most of their students, a problem on the training ground but a disaster when the trainers ‘volunteered’ to lead the unit into combat.
In contrast organisational issues were the least of the problems faced by the Monarchist tank force in the north. Thanks to the large scale of British investment in Spanish industry there were large numbers of bi-lingual engineers who could be conscripted from the railways, shipyards and mines of Spain and translate between the British tankers and their Spanish pupils. The Monarchist tankers were also fortunate in their commanding officer, getting the talented and confident General de Brigada Antonio Aranda. Aranda, fresh from his heroics at the Siege of Ovideo, was not a tank officer but an engineer turned infantry officer, though given the poor performance of the pre-war Spanish tank corps this was not necessarily a disadvantage. This does highlight the first main problem faced by the Monarchists; doctrine and tactics. The Soviets had an excellent doctrinal base, the recently adopted ‘Deep Operations’ ideas of Triandafillov and Tukhachevski and though there were struggles adapting them for the far smaller, and far less mechanised, conditions in Spain there was at least a base. In stark contrast the Royal Armoured Corps didn’t even have a basic doctrine, as we have seen in previous chapters the RAC of the time was still dependent on relatively ancient field regulations that still referred to horses. The experience can be crudely described as the blind leading the blind with predictably poor results, at least initially. While doctrine would improve as Aranda, his staff and their British advisers gained experience, there is nothing like actual combat to provide an excellent learning opportunities, the lessons would be very expensive for the tank crews themselves.
The main problem for the Monarchist tankers was however the tanks, as reconnaissance vehicles the later marks of Light Tank, especially the Mk VI, were fine vehicles. As anything else they were a death trap. The T-26s gained a reputation of being eggshells armed with hammers due to their thin 15mm armour and mighty 45mm main gun, with the earlier marks having barely 10mm of front armour and at best a 0.5” Vickers machine gun the Light Tanks were eggshells armed with stiletto knives; they could kill, but only under the right circumstances. The other major problem was the sheer variety of Light Tanks available, in the region of 150 of the Mk I through V had been produced and almost all were sent to Spain by armoured regiments keen to trade them in for the superior Mk VI. The models varied in armament, armour, engine and even crew size, a maintenance nightmare and a tactical headache for the commanders. With armoured piercing W.1z ammunition a 0.5” Vickers could knock out a T-26 at maybe 250 yards (230m), more if they were attacking the sides or front where cheaper mild steel was used instead of high grade cemented armour plate. For the earlier models tanks that used the 0.303” Vickers machine guns that distance fell to barely 150 yards, such a large variation in capability meant commanders could not treat their tanks as interchangeable in the same way the Republicans could. It hardly needs saying that the effective range for a T-26 against a Light Tank was limited by the accuracy of the gunner rather than the capacity of the 45mm gun; kills at 1000m or more were regularly recorded by the Soviet ‘volunteer’ crews.
The Light Tank Mk V. Not quite the best of breed, that honour went to the Mk VIs then entering service in the reconnaissance units of the Royal Armoured Corps, it was nevertheless a decent enough scout unit. Significantly larger than the previous models it boasted a three man crew (commander, driver, gunner), a two man turret with two machine guns (typically a 0.5” and 0.303” Vickers), better off-road suspension and a far larger fuel tank. Production was limited to barely three dozen as it was soon replaced with the Mk VI, leaving the entire run free to be sent to Spain. Ten Mk Vs had been provisionally purchased by Australia but, to the great relief of the nascent tank community in the Australian army, they were diverted to Spain. The question of what Australia should buy instead would become wrapped up in the larger debate on Australian defence policy, a debate in which the government and the Army’s senior officers had very different views.
The PSOE/PCE offensive began well with the breakthrough at the town of Soria, the T-26s proving themselves practically immune to the Hotchkiss M1914 machine guns and rifle fire that still provided most of the defending Monarchists firepower. Safely across the River Duero the advance continued, the Left putting all their efforts into the campaign, committing not just the entire T-26 force but also the bulk of the Soviet supplied airpower, Tupolev SBs providing reconnaissance and Polikarpov I-16s hunting for any Monarchist aircraft foolish enough to contest the skies. General Aranda was having similar success on the Monarchist side, his ‘1st Armoured Division’ (in truth a reinforced brigade of tanks padded out with infantry) relieved the siege of the fortress town of Sigüenza, discovering in the process the Light Tanks 10-15mm of armour made them just as invulnerable to Republican firepower. The town secured Aranda pushed on into Soria province, aiming to cross the empty plains and capture the key Republican city of Zaragoza.
Through news from the high commands and hard fought aerial reconnaissance both sides became aware of the other. The Monarchist Northern Army was the first to blink, the cautious General Mola reverting to type and ordering the 1st Armoured north to intercept the Republican tanks and protect Burgos. Despite the best efforts of the Monarchist air force the Tupolev SBs remained all but untouchable and soon reported the presence of the chasing Monarchist tankers to the PSOE/PCE high command. Faced with a choice between continuing the drive for Burgos or turning back to fight the Monarchists, a combination of logistical concerns and bad memories won out. After having over-extended themselves in the ’36 campaign the PSOE/PCE leadership had no intention of making the same mistake again; the T-26s turned south. The two sides would meet north of Almazán, a cross-roads town on the main north-south road in the east of the Soria region.
For the opening weeks of the northern campaigns the two side armoured forces managed to avoid each other, focusing instead on their own operations. As news of the wider progress of the war reached the commanders a clash between the two forces became inevitable. Te general lack of anti-tank weaponry in Spain and the reliance on ancient machine guns lacking AP rounds meant the best anti-tank weapon available to either side was their own tanks. The two armoured forces would eventually meet outside the small cross-roads town of Almazán for the world’s first large scale tank versus tank battle.
The initial clashes were surprisingly even; over confidence in the T-26 companies saw them charging their Monarchist rivals believing themselves invulnerable to ‘mere’ machine gun fire. These ‘good times’ for the Monarchist did not last, after several expensive lessons the Republicans learnt the fatal difference between a standard Spanish Hotchkiss machine gun and an armoured piercing firing Vickers and kept a respectful distance. Despite a significant off-road speed advantage (25mph vs. barely 10mph) it was the turn of the Monarchist to learn a harsh lesson; a Light Tank could not close the range faster than a T-26 could fire. After a week of clashes almost two dozen T-26s had been knocked out but over 50 Light Tanks littered the countryside, a ratio made even worse as many of the T-26s were repairable but the wreckage of a Light Tank after a 45mm shell tore through it was fit for little but scrap.
Bowing to superior firepower General Aranda pulled back into Almazán, relying on the limited number of bridges across the Duero River to channel the advancing T-26s and the close city confines to narrow the range advantage. Taking the opportunity to knock out the only Monarchist tank force in the north of Spain the PSOE/PCE pursued. After encountering limited resistance, and importantly no tanks, the T-26s raced across the town’s bridges and into the jaws of their second surprise of the month; the Boys rifle. While officially still undergoing ‘field trials’ (not technically a lie) the cumbersomely titled Rifle, Anti-Tank, .55in, Boys had been shipped to Spain by Britain to provide the Monarchist armies with an infantry anti-tank capability. Capable of punching through the frontal armour of the T-26 at 100yards, and the side and rear armour at well over double that, the Boys was an unpleasant surprise for T-26 crews who were used to being practically invulnerable to infantry fire.
Bloodily repulsed from the town the PSOE/PCE retired to lick their wounds and re-consider their strategy. While the T-26 could dominate the open country it was clear that urban combat would be a far dicier affair. If the 1st Armoured escaped it would remain a threat to the PSOE/PCE supply lines and rear areas, yet taking the town would need either a slow and tedious siege or a short and bloody assault. As the forces of the Republican left considered their next move the situation was no clearer for the Monarchists. For all the propaganda about the heroic ‘Defence of Almazán’ the harsh fact was the Monarchist 1st Armoured had been defeated in open combat, lost far more tanks than the enemy and was pinned in Almazán. With most of Soria Province being open plains the long term prospects favoured the Republicans, from confidence about sweeping across the region much of the Monarchist staff was occupied trying to work out a safe route of retreat back to Sigüenza.
As the ferocity of the opening clashes faded attention in Spain turned to the south where the German backed Flangists were poised to smash into the French equipped Republican government. The tank warfare in the north had got the attention of the world's armoured warfare theorists, but it would be the clashes between the H35 and the Panzer I that would have the wider impacts.
Even I'll admit this update was a bit late, mind you it is 2,500+ words so I hope it was worth the wait. A feast of tank facts all of which are true, not least the proposed purchase of the Mk V by Australia which actually happened in OTL. With the Singapore Strategy now looking far more likely than OTL (after all the RN Eastern Fleet is currently 3 BBs and 2 CVs plus a far larger air force contingent) I think Australian grand strategy could be an interesting butterfly.
Back to Spain, the Republican T-26s dominate the countryside but with the heavier Vickers machine guns and Boys rifles the Monarchist can hold the cities. Overall the Monarchists needs some better tanks and the Republicans need more artillery and heavy weapons, whichever side gets properly equipped first will win. Until then it's slight advantage to the Republicans, they just can't do a lot with it.
The story of the T-26 is of course true, a great deal of effort was expended on getting nowhere at all, unless of course you count all the training the designers and engineers got by reinventing the wheel. A funny old story and one I felt I had to tell.
Any thoughts on the new map, I think the zoomed in look is good but graphics are not my strongest point so I'm very open to suggestions. But then I'm open to suggestions, comments and advice on everything else so nothing new there.
Next update to the South where we shall see more tank on tank action and the beginning of yet another plot strand!