When Israeli armoured vehicles are mentioned, one often thinks of Merkava tanks first. Without a doubt, these vehicles are a point of pride for Israel. However, the backbone of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) was composed of converted foreign vehicles for a very long time. The Israelis spent several decades fine tuning the art of adapting vehicles to suit their needs. Everything started with improvised armoured cars, which played an important role in the war for Israeli independence.
Amid growing tensions
In June of 1920, the Haganah, a militarized underground organization, was created in Palestine, with the objective of protecting Jews from increasingly frequent raids by Arabs. The relationship between Jews and Arabs in the country, which was a part of the British Empire at the time, was growing worse. At the same time, Jewish emigration from Europe increased due to Hitler's rise to power.
An Arab uprising against the immigration began in April of 1936. Around that time, attacks on Jews became regular occurrences. Units known as the Notrim were formed as auxiliaries to British police. Effectively, they were composed of legalized Haganah fighters. Later, these units were reformed into the Jewish Settlement Police (JSP), whose numbers grew constantly.
Around this time, the JSP began using improvised armoured vehicles. This was caused by the fact that the Arab attackers used firearms with increasing frequency. The Haganah also built improvised armoured cars, including armoured tractors. The JSP usually armoured regular light commercial trucks, usually British types (Fordson, Morris, etc). Since these conversions were improvised, the results were visually distinctive. Some trucks only had armoured cabins, others received complete protection, including the engine.
However, the overall concept of the improvised armoured cars was the same. As a rule, the truck had an open bed, designed to carry JSP fighters. Some trucks had portholes in the sides, in some you could only fire over the top. Overall, the JSP converted about 30 vehicles.
In addition to its advantages, the armour had its drawbacks. As mentioned, the armoured cars were built on the chassis of commercial trucks. Of course, they had some weight reserve, but the converted trucks became heavier and suffered from reduced mobility. Because of this, the armoured cars were a significant part of the JSP's fleet, but not its majority. More than half of the police force's trucks had no armour at all, but retained high mobility.
The peak of improvised armoured car production was hit in the first half of WWII, when there was a real danger of Germans invading Palestine. During this difficult time, it was the JSP that acted as a police force. On May 15th, 1941, under authorization by the British government, strike units called Palmach were formed. The Haganah was partially legalized. These units participated in combat.
It was clear by the spring of 1943 that the threat of an invasion was gone, and the Palmach units were disbanded. The amount of converted trucks began to drop. There were 16 of them left by May of 1945, and that number continued to decrease. Further developments forced a return to the idea of improvised armoured cars, but on a different level.
The calm before the storm
In 1939, Malcolm MacDonald, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, presented the «White Book», a report on British politics in Palestine. According to this document, the immigration quota of Jews in Israel would be 75 thousand people in five years, and a united nation for Jews and Arabs would be created over the span of ten years. In reality, everything happened differently.
After the end of WWII, the tension between Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine grew, and it became obvious that an armed conflict was unavoidable. In addition, the Haganah and Palmach periodically engaged the British in battle. One way or another, the British were slowly leaving their colonies. Palestine's fate was in the hands of the UN.
The situation in the region was escalated after the General Assembly published Resolution #181 on November 29th, 1947, detailing the partition of Palestine. The Arabs did not agree with this document, and attacks on convoys of Jewish settlers began the next day.
The Jews had to return to building improvised armoured cars. This time, the concept was different from the pre-war designs. New armoured cars were designed to fight in convoys, and perform the function of a truck at the same time. The cabin and engine compartment were protected. An improvised armoured truck was placed in the front of a column, and often there was another one in the rear. Armed men were carried in the first and last trucks.
The British allowed the construction of these armoured cars, but did not allow installation of armament, including turrets. However, this did not prevent the Haganah from concealing weapons in hard to find places.
Trucks with armoured cabins weren't the only types of improvised armoured vehicles whose production began in November of 1947. In addition to delivery of cargo, it was also necessary to transport passengers from one settlement to another. As a result, construction of improvised armoured buses began. Just like with JSP armoured cars, there was a great variety of armoured buses. Typically, these were regular buses with armoured engine compartments. The armour was placed inside the hull.
It's worth mentioning buses that were used in Jerusalem separately. On April 13th, 1948, a convoy headed for the Hadassah hospital was attacked. 79 people were killed, and 22 went missing. A significant portion of those killed were hospital staff. On July 7th, a decision was reached to make the hospital a demilitarized enclave. Nevertheless, there was still a threat of new attacks. This triggered the appearance of the largest armoured buses. These vehicles are impressive not only in their size, but in the highly thought out armour layout. One of these buses is preserved to this day.
The growing number of armed attacks on Jewish settlements and convoys caused David Ben-Gurion to allocate a budget for the construction of 25 armoured cars in December of 1947. Having evaluated the situation, the future Prime Minister of Israel decided to build two kinds of armoured cars. The first was similar to the JSP armoured cars in its function. The vehicle was meant to be used to deliver cargo or as an armoured personnel carrier. The second one was a completely different kind of vehicle, with a turret and armament, typically a machinegun. The combat variant was illegal from the British point of view, but the prohibition was ignored in the face of the coming war.
Unlike the improvised armoured cars, which were haphazardly built in settlements, the new armoured cars were built according to one template, created by Joe (Joseph) Kryden, a descendant of Jewish emigrants from Russia, who came to Palestine in 1939. On his arrival, he joined the British army, where he ended up in the technical service. Kryden reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and commanded repair workshops in Egypt at the peak of his career.
It is not known how familiar Kryden was with the improvised armoured cars that the British were building in 1940-41 while awaiting a German landing, but he probably knew a fair amount, considering the similarity of his designs to those built in England. By 1948, Kryden had a wealth of experience, which he applied successfully.
The biggest problem in the construction of armoured cars was a deficit in armour. 15 mm plates were required for guaranteed protection against rifle caliber bullets, and finding them was no easy task. Kryden developed the «sandwich» to solve this issue. A 38 mm thick layer of wood was placed in between 5 mm and 3 mm plates of steel. The side and rear of the armoured cars was made out of these «sandwiches», and the front was made from solid 14 mm plate. As a result, the truck was protected from all sides with minimal usage of deficit materials. Armoured cars designed by Kryden are often called «sandwiches» in honour of this solution.
Joe Kryden's second problem was the wide variety of chassis that were available for conversion. The Chief of Armour of the Transport Forces, appointed by Ben-Gurion, tried to standardize the vehicles as much as possible. He achieved this, partially, and the «sandwiches» can be easily distinguished from other improvised armoured cars. However, he didn't manage full standardization.
The most widely available were Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) trucks. These trucks, built at Ford and Chevrolet factories in Canada on British orders, had a wide range of cargo capacity (from 0.75 to 3 tons). The trucks were robust and had all wheel drive capability, which was an advantage as far off-road mobility went. Another feature that helped Kryden was the location of the engine. The designers of the CMP shifted the engine as far back as possible. This improved visibility and made armouring simpler. Typically, 1.5 or 3 ton trucks were converted.
Armoured cars built on the Canadian chassis were slightly different from one another, but they became the most widely known «canonical» models. The vast majority of them were built in the first variant, as a supply truck that also performed the duties of an APC. These cars were reminiscent of the LPTB Type ST Armoured Bus, built in Britain in 1940. Thanks to the engine placement, the front of the «sandwich» was short. On a portion of the vehicles, the armour repeated the shape of the hood. The headlights were kept in place, with removable covers added. In addition to observation hatches for the driver and passenger, there were also portholes in the sides.
A characteristic feature of most «sandwiches» was a V-shaped roof with removable panels. This design helped grenades thrown from above roll off harmlessly. This precaution paid off, since city fighting was a common part of the First Arab-Israeli War.
127 such vehicles were built from December 28th, 1947, to April 15th, 1948. Six companies were involved in their production: Magen-Chetwood, Ha'argaz, Solel Boneh, Harash, Hamburger, and Kedma. It's not surprising that full standardization was not achieved. The vehicles differed in observation hatches, roof, porthole shape, and hood armour. In addition, the armoured cars were built on 1.5 and 3 ton truck chassis, which also looked different. The chassis could be rear drive or all wheel drive.
Aside from Canadian trucks, there were also American trucks in Palestine. Thanks to ties of some Haganah members to the US, purchases of trucks stored in large amounts at army warehouses after the war began as early as 1947. One of the models used was the Chevrolet G-7117, a standard American 1.5 ton truck. The Americans sold them as regular trucks, not knowing that they would be used to build armoured cars. The USSR used the Chevrolet G-7117 to carry M-13 rocket launchers, among other things. They were suitable for use as «sandwiches» as well.
These trucks turned out a lot «neater» than Canadian Ford-based armoured cars. Externally, the «sandwiches» were reminiscent of the American Scout Car M3A1. Rails for machinegun turret were added on the inside, and self propelled mortars were often built using this chassis. Other variants were built on the Chevrolet G-7117 chassis, which were closer to the Canadian chassis vehicles. According to existing information, at least 13 of these armoured cars were built.
The Jews began buying the GMC CCKW-353, standard 2.5 ton army trucks, even earlier, in 1946. The most common truck of WWII was easy to obtain for any country that was, at least, on neutral terms with the USA.
The first armoured cars on this chassis were built in kibbutzes and local Haganah workshops. Some vehicles only had an armoured cabin and engine compartment. There were also «bait» vehicles, which preserved an ordinary looking chassis, but had an armoured capsule on the inside. Later models had a better thought out design and looked just like factory built armoured cars.
The third platform that arrived from overseas was the T214 light truck. Widely known as the Dodge 3/4, there were 12 different versions of this vehicle. The most in-demand ones were the WC-51 and WC-52. «Sandwiches» built on their chassis were used as light multipurpose armoured cars.
In this case, the base model was a reconnaissance and assault variant, not an APC. Unlike the APCs, the trucks were equipped with turrets that contained a light machinegun. Ironically, these were usually MG 34 or MG 42 machineguns. Production of these armoured cars began in May of 1948, when the British prohibition lost its power.
First wave of armour
The start of «sandwich» production was quite timely. Large scale warfare began in January of 1948. The Haganah announced general mobilization on January 25th. British forces tried to stay out of the conflict, only intervening to break up the fighting in the toughest situations.
The Haganah was taking heavy losses in late March. As a result of one battle, all 19 armoured cars available at the time had to be left to the Arabs. Workshops building armoured cars had extra work to do. New types of armoured cars were built, including ones on Canadian Ford chassis. These vehicles had armoured cabins and hoods, and were designed to supply encircled settlements. There were also «siege breakers» equipped with rams.
Plan «Dalet» was accepted on March 10th. According to this plan, the Haganah was to become a fully fledged military upon the end of the British Mandate. A decision was also made to move on from defense and vengeance operations to an offensive, which began on April 3rd. Improvised armoured cars took an active part in these battles. They were also still being used for convoy escorts. «Sandwiches» took part in the convoy to Hadassah on April 13th.
It would seem that the fate of the newly formed country was sealed. Israel's enemies were better armed, had tanks, armoured cars, artillery, and aircraft. However, everything turned out differently. The defenders had many people with combat experience, including in other armies. Starting in late May, Israel began receiving weapons from Czechoslovakia, with the USSR's blessing. These supplies contained the German machineguns that were installed on armoured cars built from Dodge WC-51 trucks. Workshops began producing homemade anti-tank weapons.
Finally, the Arabs turned out to be poor fighters. The coordination between allies left much to be desired, and superior armament didn't help. The arsenal of the IDF, which the Haganah was reorganized into on May 31st, 1948, was fleshed out significantly by trophies.
Production of «sandwiches» ceased in May of 1948. Despite the limited effectiveness and all issues that improvised armoured vehicles suffer, they played an important role. They evacuated citizens of settlements under attack, carried supplies, moved troops.
As supply issues were resolved, the layered armour was replaced with proper armour. Joe Kryden's later creations could no longer be called «improvised». These armoured cars, with protection no worse than factory built ones, remained in service for a very long time. This is especially true of vehicles on the GMC CCKW-353 chassis. They served as APCs until the end of the 1960s. As for early «sandwiches», many survived in Israel as monuments of museum exhibits.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.