Czech-made weapons were popular since the start of the 20th century. Skoda's artillery was in demand even outside of Austria-Hungary, which Czechia belonged to until 1918. Weapons exports continued after the formation of the First Czechoslovak Republic. As a rule, their excellent quality was accompanied by a very agreeable price.
Tanks joined cannons in the mid-1930s. Czechoslovakia managed to take second place in tank exports worldwide, coming up just behind Great Britain. The first and most popular export item was the Praga AH-IV tankette.
A British beginning
The first tanks of the Czechoslovakian army were seven French Renault FTs, which were already obsolete by the mid-1920s. This was especially true of their mobility, which became more and more important on the battlefield. The Czechoslovakian army decided to not reinvent the wheel and turn to foreign specialists. They didn't have to look far. A man willing to offer his services quickly turned up in neighbouring Germany, which was forbidden from building tanks by the Treaty of Versailles. This man was Joseph Vollmer, the creator of a convertible drive design.
Czechoslovakia launched the convertible drive KH-50 program in 1923. It continued until 1929, but yielded few benefits. Vollmer's tank turned out to be poor, and the program did not advance past a few experimental prototypes.
The British, or to be more precise, British War Ministry officials, were responsible for the rise of Czechoslovakian tank exports to glory. They instigated a serious decline in domestic tank forces. Orders of tanks by the army were drastically reduced, which seriously harmed one of their main producers, Vickers-Armstrongs Limited.
The company's priorities changed to exports. The backbone of the catalogue consisted of two vehicles: the Vickers Mk.E light tank and the Carden-Loyd Mk.VI tankette. The British military let Vickers-Armstrongs loose, not realizing what they were doing. By selling their tanks abroad, the British were sharing their advanced technologies with the entire world. Direct descendants of British export tanks appeared in the USA, USSR, Germany, Poland, France, Italy, Sweden, and Japan.
Czechoslovakia was among that list as well. In 1929, CKD purchased a license for the Carden-Loyd Mk.VI tankette. Next year, a sample arrived in Czechoslovakia. According to research by Jiri Tintera, CKD built two prototypes, which were indexed CL-P (Carden-Loyd-Praga). This index was assigned because CKD's organization included the Praga company, a maker of automobiles and trucks. The CL-P became the first tank independently built by CKD. The contract with the British charged a fee of 75 pounds Sterling per vehicle. It is not surprising that the CL-P was not built in great numbers.
However, verdict of military evaluators was much more of a contributing factor. The tankettes took part in exercises near Milovice in the fall of 1930. The military did not like the tankette, and demanded that it be redesigned. A tender was launched to design a domestic tankette.
Skoda was the first to complete the task, presenting the MU-2 tankette in 1931. Little remained from the initial Carden-Loyd design. The MU-2 looked like a fully fledged tank, as it had a one-man turret instead of a casemate. However, the driver's cabin covered a significant part of its rotation on the right. The MU-2 failed trials. 5.5 mm of armour was not enough, and one machinegun was considered inadequate armament. The engine was also too weak for this vehicle.
Skoda's second attempt was the improved MU-4 tankette. The characteristics of this vehicle looked significantly better. Its armour was thickened to 10 mm, its armament was increased to two ZB vz.26 machineguns, and the vehicle was equipped with a 40 hp engine. The MU-4 was presented in 1932, but kept being tuned until 1934. Precious time was lost.
Unlike its competitor, CKD preferred to take an existing vehicle and convert it. The Carden-Loyd Mk.VI layout was retained, but the fighting/engine compartment were seriously reworked. The cramped layout with domes was discarded, and CKD designed a hull without side pockets. The driver's seat was moved to the right, and the observation device was in front of him. It could be flipped up during travel. The commander received a machinegun mount with a wide arc of fire. Two ZB vz.26 machineguns were installed in the tankette: one for the commander, one to the right of the driver.
Large hatches were added to the roof of the fighting compartment, and the ventilation system was much better thought out. The engine was replaced with a Praga ANH 30.7 hp engine. The mass of the tankette, indexed P-I, grew to 2.4 tons, but the more powerful engine allowed it to retain decent mobility. The protection was quite respectable: the thickness of the front armour was 12 mm, which protected the tankette from rifle caliber bullets.
The converted tankettes received indexes NIX 223, NIX 224, and NIX 225. CKD also built a fourth tankette, which remained at the factory. Trials of the P-I began in 1932, but additional changes were made to the tankette during trials.
On October 17th, 1933, the tankettes were sent to Milovice, and the decision to accept the tankettes into service was made shortly after. Officially, the tankette was called Tc vz. 33 (tankette model 1933). The prototypes received serial numbers 13.359-13.361. A contract was signed with CKD for 70 tankettes. The Tc vz. 33 became the first mass produced Czechoslovakian armoured vehicle. Shipments began in November of 1933 and finished on October 10th, 1934. Mass produced vehicles had serial numbers 13.420-13.489.
The Tc vz. 33 was the first and last tankette of the Czechoslovakian army. It found its place in the nomenclature of armoured vehicles, but was treated as a training vehicle. On April 23rd, 1934, CKD built the first six light P-II tanks, later accepted into service as the LT vz. 34. This vehicle was superior to the Tc vz. 33 in every way. The Czechoslovakian army placed its bet on light tanks armed with cannons.
The Czechoslovakian strategy was not shared by all nations. Small tanks were kept by many nations, who considered small and light machinegun-armed tanks to be suitable for infantry support. Germany, Italy, Japan, the US, Poland: tankettes and light machinegun tanks composed the backbone of the tank force of these nations.
It's not surprising that many nations purchased tankettes and small machinegun tanks. Persia (known as Iran after March 22nd, 1935) was one of them. In early 1935, a purchasing commission headed by Ismail Khan was sent to Europe with the task of buying 3 ton tankettes. Negotiations with Czechoslovakian representatives took place in Paris. The Iranians were interested in CKD's proposals, and Emil Oplatka was to thank for it. The Iranian delegation arrived in Prague in May. After inspecting CKD's products on May 15th, the impressed Iranians signed a contract for 26 TNH light tanks.
The Iranians didn't forget about the tankettes. The same agreement also included 30 AH-IV tankettes. Even though neither vehicle existed in metal, the demonstration convinced the delegation that everything will be fine. The Czechs didn't forget about gifts: the Iranians received an experimental P-I tankette prototype. This was merely a way to get rid of an unnecessary vehicle.
While the Praga TNH was a modernization of the not too good P-II-a tank, the Iranian tankette was built from scratch. Even the modernized P-I was an antique by that time. CKD got to work, and the Iranian commission that arrived in September of 1935 was shown a completely different vehicle. The AH-IV's mass grew to 3.5 tons, the hull became half a meter longer, and the design began to look more like CKD's light tanks. The commander received a proper 360 degree turret, and the driver kept his machinegun to the right. However, the experimental vehicle didn't have any armament at first.
The suspension, invented by Alexei Surin, was borrowed from the Praga TNH. The prototype used the same engine as the P-I, but an improved transmission and suspension allowed the vehicle to reach a top speed of 40 kph.
The Iranian delegation was impressed. At the time, the AH-IV was the best tankette in the world, whose characteristics approached those of light tanks. It's not surprising that the order was bumped up to 50 vehicles. The cost of one tankette was 1629 pounds Sterling, which was cheaper than the German PzI Ausf. B.
Unlike the THN, production was not established in Prague, but in Slany, north-west of the capital. The biggest issue with assembly was that the level of mechanization of the factory here was low. This affected the speed of assembly. Another issue was sub-par components shipped by POLDI Hütte. Their armour turned out to be too brittle.
The deadlines slipped, and the Iranian commission reaped profits from it. As compensation, the Iranians received more powerful Praga RH engines the 3.47 L 55 hp engine propelled the tankette to a speed of 44 kph. In the end, the contract was completed almost on time. By November 3rd, 1936, 48 tankettes left Slany. The remaining two vehicles and the prototype were sent to Iran in 1937.
The Iranians loved the Czechoslovakian tankettes. Negotiations for another 300 vehicles began in 1938, but stalled after the annexation by Germany. The most that the Iranians achieved was the purchase of Telefunken radios, which were installed on the tankettes. However, neither the tankettes nor the radios helped Shah Pahlavi. During the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran in August of 1941, the tanks remained inactive. After the war, in 1947, the Iranians tried to buy spare parts from CKD, but fruitlessly.
The success of the tankettes and Praga TNH was noticed by other nations. In January of 1936, a Romanian commission arrived in Czechoslovakia after a fruitless tour of Europe. Initially, the aim was to get the same deal as the Iranians. The Romanians wished to buy TNH light tanks at a cost of 375,000 Czech kroner each and tankettes at a cost of 307,000 kroner. Later, in April of 1936, a contract for 100 Praga P-II-aJ and 35 AH-IV was signed. The light tank rapidly disappeared from the contract, since it lost out to the Skoda S-II, which was accepted into service by the Czechoslovakian army under the index LT vz. 35.
On August 6th, 1935, a contract for 35 improved tankettes indexed AH-IV-R was signed. In Romania, the vehicles were called R-1. The price grew a little to 320,585 kroner. These vehicles had the improved Praga RHP engine, a planetary Praga-Wilson gearbox, and a mass of 3.9 tons. The top speed grew to 45 kph, and the cruising range increased slightly. The machinegun mount changed slightly, and a special «collar» was added to protect the turret ring from splash.
The first 10 R-1s left the factory in Slany on September 27th, 1937. While final trials were carried out, the rest of the tankettes were completed. Despite a small delay, the Romanians were happy with their vehicle, which was meant to be a reconnaissance tank. Negotiations regarding licensed production of the R-1 in Romania began in May of 1938. On February 22nd, 1939, an agreement to produce the R-1 at the Malaxa factory in Reșița was signed. This automotive factory already had experience with assembling Renault UE tractors. The plan was to assemble 382 tankettes at Malaxa, but only one vehicle was built in reality, with serial number Sr.301.
The R-1 was actively used by the Romanian army during the war against the USSR. They took part in the fighting for Odessa. Even with a noticeable deficit of anti-tank weapons on the Soviet side, the tankettes took a beating. Six vehicles were lose irreparably, some of which were captured by the Red Army. Almost all other vehicles required repairs. The tankette's situation looked bleak.
All remaining tankettes were repaired by the summer of 1942, and 14 more were lost by December. The obsolete R-1 was pulled out into the reserves. By September 1st, 1943, 13 of them were kept at the cavalry school in Sibiu. Of those, only 5 were functional. An idea came up in November to turn them into SPGs with 45 mm guns and install the turrets in fortifications. The idea was discarded, since the 45 mm gun was no longer an effective anti-tank weapon. Nevertheless, the R-1 got to fight again. When Romania flipped over to the Allied side, the tankettes were reactivated. Ironically, their last battles were on Czech territory.
The next client to take an interest in the AH-IV was unexpected: Sweden. It was hard to accuse the Swedish tank industry of being backward in the mid-1930s. Led by Otto Merker, the Landsverk design bureau came up with a number of advanced designs. The Landsverk L-60 was actively exported. An even lighter vehicle, the L-120 reconnaissance tank, was kept in reserve. It was also offered on foreign markets.
The Swedish army, however, was in a difficult situation. Aside from 10 obsolete Strv m/21 and 3 Strv m/31, it had nothing to brag about. Meanwhile, the rising tensions in Europe were being felt even in Sweden. Close economic cooperation with Germany didn't guarantee safety, but the Swedes were afraid of the USSR more. On July 11th, 1936, the Swedish parliament allotted 130 million kroner for modernization of the army.
Of those, 6 million were reserved for buying 50 tanks. These were split into two types: 4 ton tankettes armed with machineguns and 7 ton light tanks armed with cannons. The tanks offered by Landsverk did not meet the requirements of the Swedish army, and they were very expensive. The military was looking more and more closely at foreign vehicles. Like the Finns, the Swedes could have purchased the Vickers Mk.E, but it was clear that the Landsverk L-60 was better.
Nevertheless, a purchasing commission was organized in late 1936. It included Captain Erik Gillner from the KAAD, Lieutenant Colonel Anders Bergvist, representing the infantry, and Major Gösta Bratt from the Gotland Lifeguard Tank Battalion. In January-February of 1937, these officers visited France, Poland, and Germany. In France, they were offered the Renault ACG-1 (AMC-35), the Renault YR, and the AMR 35ZT, but none of these vehicles were satisfactory. In Poland, the commission examined the 7TP tank and TK-S tankette. These were also met with little enthusiasm. Finally, the Swedes were shown the PzI Ausf. A in Germany. It was also deemed unsatisfactory.
Finally, negotiations between CKD and the director of the Ackumulator AB Jungner company began in January of 1937. The two companies were connected. Swedish batteries were used by the Czech company. Jungner decided to make its contribution to the Swedish rearmament and offered to act as an ambassador between CKD and the military.
This kind of activity is not surprising. Ackumulator AB Jungner also owned a shipyard in Oskarshamn, which means it had the means to build tanks. There was also the fact that the newly formed commission included, apart from Gillner, Captain Helg Jung, whose brother worked in the Jungner design bureau, and Captain Fale Burman, who was also connected with the company.
On March 2nd, 1937, Ackumulator AB Jungner and CKD signed an agreement for purchase of tanks worth 80 million Czechoslovakian kroner. A day before that, Gillner and Burman left for Czechoslovakia. They participated in trials that took part in the Giant Mountains (Krkonoše). Aside from the AH-IV, the Swedish tankers got to try out the TNH, which left them impressed. On March 9th, they viewed various tanks and designs at CKD. Among them was the AH-IV-C, a cannon variant of the tankette.
Upon returning to Sweden, Gillner was visited by the Czechoslovakian military attache. Gillner's opinion was formed: Czechoslovakian tankettes must be bought. They were ideal for the Swedish requirements.
A meeting was held in late March to discuss once more which tanks would be purchased. The L-120, which performed poorly during trials, was rejected. There were no candidates left aside from the AH-IV. However, the Swedes insisted that the armour and armament must be Swedish. This was only the start of the changes. On June 2nd, 1937, Surin presented an enlarged version of the tankette, indexed AH-IV-D. The vehicle was equipped with a more powerful Volvo engine. On June 8th, the Swedish commission returned for another visit. Lieutenant Colonel Ehrensvärd from the General Staff tagged along with Gillnerr and Bratt. The commission was shown the experimental prototype of the R-1. The tankette's engine stalled during trials, but this did not sway the commission. Even Bratt, a loyal Landsverk man, was satisfied.
The final variant was indexed AH-IV-S, then AH-IV-Sv. A decision was made to purchase 48 tankettes at a cost of 37,500 Swedish kroner each. later, the number dropped to 46, and the cost increased to 42,240 kroner. 75,000 kroner worth of spare parts were also purchased. The first prototype was ready in September, and the Swedish commission reviewed it in November. Satisfied with their tests, the Swedes signed the contract.
The prototype was taken apart and used as a sample for blueprints of the mass production unit. Czechoslovakian industry only built a portion of the vehicle, the rest was built in Sweden. The armour was supplied by a steel foundry in Avesta, and assembly was performed at the shipyard in Oskarshamn. Engineer Harry Joss and 20 other CKD employees directed the assembly.
The first tankettes were ready in September of 1938. The Swedish variant was 20 cm longer and 10 cm wider, and its mass grew to 4680 kg. The armour thickness increased to 15 mm. The tankette was equipped with a Volvo FC engine from the LV93-95 truck. The 4.4 L linear six cylinder engine put out 90 hp, giving the AH-IV-Sv a top speed of 60 kph. The tankette was equipped with a radio from the start. The observation devices were more modern, and it also had a commander's cupola. All the armament, consisting of two ksp 8 mm m/36 strv machineguns, was housed in the turret. At the time, this was the best tankette in the world, comparable to some light tanks.
The contract was fulfilled in February of 1939. That is when Sweden accepted the tankette into service as the Strv m/37. Tuning continued into March, when news about Czechoslovakia's occupation by Germany arrived. Joss chose to stay in Sweden.
As for the new tankettes, they received serial numbers from 131 to 178. Initially, they were assigned to the Gota Lifeguard Infantry Regiment (Göta livgarde, I 2). The Strv m/37 was the most numerous tank in the Swedish army at the start of WWII. The formation of a tank battalion finally allowed for real exercises. In the fall of 1939, the tanks were split between the I 9 (Skarabork) and I 10 (Strängnäs) infantry regiments. Like many Swedish tanks, the Strv m/37 enjoyed a long service life. They were only written off in 1953. 10 vehicles survive to this day, and half of them are in working order.
The last bow
The end of WWII marked the resurgence of Czechoslovakian weapons exports. In case of tanks, these were either Soviet or German designs. The TVP and a number of light tank projects were launched for the country's own army. However, they were gradually closed in favour of producing licensed copies of Soviet armament, including the T-34-85. Nevertheless, the first commercial success of CKD after the war is connected with their pre-war history.
In June of 1947, CKD engineer Balthazar Germarkyan began working as an agent in the Middle East, with the goal of promoting Czechoslovakian arms. He earned his paycheque. While based in Cairo, he closed a number of high profile deals. In 1948, he visited Ethiopa, where he managed to get an audience with Emperor Haile Selassie I. The monarch's interest was piqued, strangely enough, by the tankette, which was obsolete by the time WWII broke out. The reason was simple: no large tank battles were expected, but a tankette was enough to fight off partisans.
The emperor set the following requirements: the mass must be within 3.5-4.5 tons, the engine must be air-cooled, and work well in hot and dusty conditions. During further negotiations in the spring of 1948, Ethiopia asked for 20 tankettes. The military approved of this, but not without caveats. A deal for TNH tanks was blocked, which benefited the Americans.
The final step of the negotiations was the signing of an agreement in Addis Ababa on June 24th, 1948, to supply 20 AH-IV tankettes at a cost of $26,750 each. Germarkyan signed on CKD's behalf. The tankette's design did not take long: Surin took the R-1 and slightly improved it. The tankette was equipped with a Tatra 114 air cooled diesel engine. With a volume of almost 5 L, it put out 65 hp. The tankette grew to 3930 kg, but the engine allowed it to accelerate to 43 kph. The modernized tankette was indexed AV-IV-Hb.
The first five tankettes were ready by January of 1950. After trials in the mountains, they were sent to the customer. Crew training was organized in May of 1950. Ethiopia ordered spare parts in 1951, but politics interfered again. Ethiopia's participation in the Korean War on behalf of the UN prevented any further cooperation with socialist Czechoslovakia.
It can be said that the Czechoslovakian communists dug a grave for the country's domestic tank industry. Denial of export shipments to several countries led to Czechoslovakian tank production being reduced to licensed copies of Soviet T-34-85s and SU-100s, which was later moved to Slovakian Martin. This is one of the cases where politics and common sense were incompatible.
As for the Ethiopian tankettes, they remained in service into the 1980s.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Russian State Military Archive
- Export Light Tanks. Tanque 39, Pzw 39, LT-40, V. Francev, C. Kliment, MBI, 2007
- Czechoslovak Tanks 1930–1945 Photo-Album Part 1, Vladimir Francev, Karel Trojanek, Capricorn Publications, 2013
- Author's photo archive