On November 19th, 1928, an unusual vehicle came out of Fort Meade in Maryland. It looked more like a race car than what it really was: a tank. The turret was absent, replaced with a Browning M1919A2 on a pintle mount. Another machinegun was installed in a sponson in the front of the hull. This was the Christie M.1928, an experimental vehicle built by John Walter Christie's new company, the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation. Christie called his brainchild «M.1940», implying that this was a design ahead of its time. The main feature of the tank was the independently sprung suspension, known as the Christie suspension today.
The first unofficial demonstration of the Christie M.1928, sanctioned by Charles P. Summerall (the Chief of Staff of the US Army from 1926 to 1930) occurred in October of 1928 in Fort Myer, Virginia. As a result, a decision was made to begin trials of the tank on Christie's dime. During a march from Fort Meade to Gettysburg and back, the tank achieved an average speed of 45 kph, while the maximum speed was 68 kph on tracks and 112 kph on wheels. After the first phase of trials, the tank returned to the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation factory in Rahway, New Jersey, where it underwent repairs. In June of 1929, army trials were completed, and the cavalry continued testing the tank.
The Christie tank ruined the Bureau of Ordnance's plans to replace over 200 M1917 tanks. Before the M.1928 appeared on the scene, the main contender for the main tank of American infantry was the Light Tank T1. In the summer and fall of 1928, the T1E1 tanks also marched between Fort Meade and Gettysburg. The average speed during the first run was 14.5 kph, the second was 16 kph. After such «impressive» results, the demonstration of the Christie tank was like a bomb falling on the military representatives.
The first request to issue funding to purchase the Christie Combat Car (the military didn't classify it as a tank) was issued in February of 1929. On December 11th, the head of the Bureau of Ordnance recommended that the $250,000 reserved for T1E2 tanks should be used to buy four or five Christie M.1928 tanks for military trials.
The situation changed when a new Bureau of Ordnance head, Major General Samuel Hoff, was appointed in early 1930. He was against buying a whole batch of Christie tanks and thought that only one would be better. The general's decision was influenced by a report provided by Christie's arch enemy, Captain John K. Christmas. The Society of Automotive Engineers Ordnance Advisory Committee (SOA OAK) fanned the flames. This organization was created in 1919 by Clarence S. Williams to work on prospective armoured vehicles. SOA OAK members harshly criticized Christie's design while praising the Light Tank T1. This wasn't surprising, as the Bureau of Ordnance lobby, of which Christmas was a member, kept trying to push through the Light Tank T1.
Get in line!
On June 28th, 1930, after long negotiations and underhanded struggles, a decision was made to sign contract #89 with the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation to develop and build an improved version of the M.1928. The experimental prototype cost the treasury $55,000, with $6,000 reserved for tests and $1,000 for modification of the engine. Captain Christmas was appointed as the inspector of the contract from the Bureau of Ordnance. The rest of the money issued to buy tanks returned to the treasury.
During this struggle, Christie found other clients. The first among them was Poland. In 1929, Captain Marian Rusinsky, a representative of the Military Institute of Engineering Researh (WIBI), was sent to the United States. He met Christie and learned that the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation was working on an improved version of the M.1928, indexed M.1940. After negotiations, another contract was signed for Christie to build an improved M.1928 tank for Poland. The tank cost $30,000 and spare parts cost $3,500. The tank was due 90 days after the contract was signed.
The contract stipulated that in case of a missed deadline, the Polish government could not penalize the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation more than $10,000. The Polish side also explored the possibility of purchasing a set of patents for an additional $90,000, but that deal was never made. The Poles paid their advance immediately.
On April 28th, 1930, only a month after the deal with Poland, the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation signed a contract with the Soviet Amtorg Trading Corporation. The USSR paid $60,000 for two Christie M.1940 tanks (in two installments), $4,000 for spare parts, and $100,000 for a set of patents and a production license for ten years. The contract required the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation to inform the USSR about new tank designs. A place for a Soviet engineer at the Rahway factory was also reserved. This engineer was N.M. Toskin, the head of the Technical Department of the Directorate of Motorization and Mechanization. He arrived in the US in mid-July. The first 127 pages of blueprints were delivered to Moscow in August.
In addition to one hesitant domestic buyer, Christie now had two foreign ones. There was also a brief attempt by the Germans to get Christie to work for them. Peter Chamberlain writes that the Germans offered a sum of $1,000,000, but Christie showed them the door.
Out of the two contracts, only the Soviet was fulfilled. Christie had a falling out with Poland, the contract was broken, and the advance was later returned through the courts. As for the M.1940, the tanks were sent to the USSR on December 24th, 1930, four months after the deadline in the contract. The tanks had no turrets and were missing some equipment, as a result of which $25,000 was withheld from Christie's payment.
While the ship with two M.1940 tanks departed from New York, the factory in Rahway was hard at work on the tank meant for the Ordnance Bureau. The US Wheel Track Layer Corporation did not produce the turret in time, and the M.1931 tank began its first trials without it. On January 22nd, the tank was shown off in all its glory in front of the factory in Rahway with many journalists present. The tank easily crossed various obstacles, climbed steep hills, and demonstrated excellent mobility. Of course, it was slower than the M.1928, but it was a fully fledged fighting machine.
The tank was similar to the «Soviet» M.1940, but had a few differences. Christie decided to forego a six speed gearbox and return to using a Galls chain. The front of the hull was also very different, welded instead of riveted. The tank had a proper turret with a 37 mm M1916 gun and Browning M1919 machinegun.
After initial trials, the Christie M.1931 was sent to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. The tank spent two months there, after which it returned to Rahway for repairs and modernization. Trials showed that the tank needs improvements, after which the contract was annulled and the M.1931 remained Christie's property.
However, the Bureau of Ordnance could no longer play dumb, such were the obvious advantages of the Christie tank despite its drawbacks. On March 25th, 1931, the moment of truth came: a contract was signed between the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation and the Bureau of Ordnance to build a batch of five Christie M.1931 tanks. Three months later, on June 12th, 1931, the order was expanded to seven. As for the prototype, the government never bought it. Later, it interested the British, who rented it. The trials in Britain resulted in the Cruiser Tank Mk.III.
The victory was a bitter-sweet one. The enormous expenditure on developing the Christie M.1928 put Christie in debt, and even building tanks for the USSR and the American army could not cover his losses. A large military contract was necessary, and in the early 1930s, at the start of the Great Depression, this was impossible.
The first tank was delivered in September of 1931. The way tanks were delivered is worth a special mention. Each tank cost $34,500 according to the contract, without the armament, turret, engine, muffler, or radio. These components were installed at army bases. It's a mystery as to why it was done this way, presumably the military wanted to cut costs. The first tank assembled in this way arrived at Aberdeen on October 9th, 1931. The last tank was received in March of 1932. Four tanks were given to the cavalry, three to the infantry.
Another two tanks were ordered in addition to the initial contract. There are varying opinions on what these tanks were. Peter Chamberlain writes that these tanks with six-speed gearboxes were tanks initially built for Poland. On the other hand, Polish sources say that only one tank was ordered. According to famous American tank historian Richard Hunnicut, only the seventh M.1931 had this gearbox, which only adds to the confusion. There is also no record of any such tank in the cavalry, and only one in the army (tank #7).
Serial production tanks had some differences compared to the experimental Christie M.1931. The M.1940 and experimental tank had a driver's hatch that consisted of two identical halves, but it was changed on the serial tank. One part of the hatch was not made from the left side of the cabin and the roof, the other from the right side and front. The mufflers became cylindrical, painted in a silver colour, and railings were added to the rear. The turret was also changed: the commander's cupola became fixed and a rear hatch was added.
After extensive tests at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, three tanks were sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, in February and March of 1932. They were included in F company of the 2nd Tank Regiment, reformed into the 67th Infantry Regiment (equipped with medium tanks) on October 25th, 1932. The tanks received numbers, 2, 6, and 7, as well as names: Tornado, Hurricane, and Cyclone. Tanks 2 and 6 with Galls chains were indexed Convertible Medium Tank T3, and tank #7 with a gearbox was indexed Convertible Medium Tank T3E1.
Aside from Christie tanks, the regiment included a Light Tank T1, Medium Tank T1E1, and Medium Tank T2. Photographs that survive today show the difference in the treatment of Christie tanks compared to tanks of other models. Even the crews looked differently, with white jumpsuits over their uniforms, reminiscent of the ones worn by race car drivers.
The tanks changed gradually throughout their service. Even though the arsenals were supposed to fully equip them before the arrival to Fort Benning, the tanks only reached their full combat configuration in 1933, which radios were finally installed. The pole antennas were added to the turret. Other changes were introduced during use as well. A windshield was tested on tank #6 Hurricane for driving at high speed. Tank #2 Tornado was altered more drastically. The muffler was removed, and the rear panel was made into a hatch, which eased access to the transmission.
The first trial for the infantry's tanks was a march on June 17th, 1932, from Fort Benning to Fort McPherson, Georgia, and back. The tanks traveled 234 miles (377 km) on wheels. Tank #2 Tornado showed some issues with the oil system and tires. The other two tanks covered the distance without issues. The average speed of #6 Hurricane and #7 Cyclone was 21.6 and 24.18 mph (34.8 and 38.9 kph) respectively. The drivers did not feel fatigued after this prolonged march.
A report on the Convertible Medium Tank T3 dated January 17th, 1933, reads:
«The infantry council is of the opinion that convertible drive tanks are the most appropriate for infantry and that Christie tanks surpass all other tanks built to this day."
The council recommended the standardization of the Christie Medium Tank T3 and supported the use of funds for modernization and purchase of new tanks of this type. By that time, F company's three tanks traveled a combined total of 1403 miles (2258 km). The tanks were worn out, especially in the suspension, but the results of the trials were positive. In addition to good mobility, the tank had powerful armament and was convenient to drive. The downside was the tank's think armour (up to 12.7 mm), but Christie's competitors were no better.
Aside from positive feedback from trials, numerous appearances in the press were definitely a plus to Christie's reputation. The tanks often took part in maneuvers, and their memorable pointed shape was a great boon to any military themed publication.
In the Cavalry
At the same time as the infantry order, the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation was working on four tanks for the cavalry. These tanks were indexed Combat Car T1. Like the infantry tanks, the Combat Car T1 was delivered unfinished, and the military installed their own armament, engine, and radio.
The miserly Ordnance Bureau played a trick on armour historians. There was not enough armament for every tank, and one of them (serial number USA W.404) was lacking not only a gun, but a gun mantlet. It was equipped with a 12.7 mm Browning M1918 aircraft machinegun. A photograph of the tank perpetrated the myth that the Combat Car T1 had different armament than the Convertible Medium Tank T3. In reality, the other three cavalry tanks had identical armament to their infantry brothers.
It was not hard to tell the two apart after radios were installed: the cavalrymen put their antennas on special carriers on the left side of the turret. There was also an idea to re-arm the tank armed with a machinegun to the Browning M2HB, but that idea was never implemented.
The cavalry tanks were based in Fort Knox, Kentucky. The 1st Mechanized Cavalry Corps was based here since January 16th, 1932. It could trace its ancestry to the 1st Cavalry Regiment, the oldest cavalry unit in the USA, founded in March of 1833. The appearance of the Combat Car T1 in the US army coincided with the creation of mechanized cavalry.
The tanks were subjected to various modernizations almost as soon as they arrived at Fort Knox. One of the myths surrounding this tank is that Christie built not one, but two tanks with a gearbox. This is not true: the gearbox was installed at Fort Knox. The resulting tank was indexed Combat Car T1E1.
Another modernization replaced the Liberty L-12 engine with a 120 hp 6-cylinder Cummins engine. The tank with this modernization would have been named Combat Car T1E2, but it never took place. However, the engine was still changed. A 12-cylincer V-shaped American LaFrance engine was installed in a tank as a part of an experiment in the summer of 1932. The cooling system, clutch, and drive shaft were replaced as well.
The resulting tank, indexed Combat Car T1E3, was sent to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. The American LaFrance engine proved quieter than the Liberty L-12, but this was little consolation, as the mobility of the tank became significantly poorer. The stock components were replaced after trials, returning the vehicle to its original Combat Car T1 configuration.
Like infantry tanks, the cavalry tanks were often tested, including during marches from one fort to another. The tanks were often shown to cavalry command. One of these demonstrations was attended by George Patton, a proponent of Christie. One of these episodes is described by Charles M. Province in his book The Unknown Patton. In a chapter dedicated to Patton's wife Beatrice, he writes:
«One unimaginable episode in her history is connected with a prototype of the new tank that John Walter Christie tried to sell the American government. George was a proponent of Christie's fighting machines for several years, and he arranged a demonstration of the tank's abilities to a commission of congressmen and high ranking army representatives. This happened in Fort Myer, Virginia, in April of 1932. High ranking representatives of the Military Affairs Committee were shown a light tank called the «Christie tracked vehicle». It was an effective demonstration of the tank's power, speed, and maneuverability. It leaped over deep trenches, rushed through a river crossing, and crossed obstacles at full speed. No one in the world has seen anything like it. After the demonstration, George offered a ride to any member of the committee. When all of them refused, he gave his helmet and goggles to his wife, who went through the same track a second time. After the trip, she climbed out of the turret, beaming, covered in dirt but satisfied, without a single bruise. One of the congressmen later approached George and said: «This is a wonderful tank, George, no doubt the best I've ever seen. But we aren't about to buy it, you know that. I doubt we would even if it drove up the steps of Capitol Hill full of votes. We just can't spend money on it."
Victim of Intrigue
As with infantry command, cavalry command recommended the standardization of the tank, but the Bureau of Ordnance did not comply. Trials of cavalry and infantry tanks in 1932 revealed both advantages and drawbacks. For such a revolutionary tank as the Christie M.1931, this was perfectly fine. The most important thing was to interpret the obtained results properly. Both infantry and cavalry complained about a tight fighting compartment, especially in the front of the hull. The cavalry also considered the turret too small, and the tank's weight too large.
It was decided that these changes would be implemented in a tank created not by the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation, but by the Bureau of Ordnance in cooperation with the Rock Island Arsenal. The main reason was financial. The Combat Car T1 was too expensive to buy a necessary amount of tanks, and service was not cheap either.
Another important reason was Christie himself, an impulsive character, prone to being distracted by other projects. On October 14th, 1932, the Ordnance Committee finished the specifications for the Medium Tank T3E2. A tender was sent out to 14 companies, including the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation. The result was predictable: on November 28th it became known that Christie did not receive the contract. Instead, American LaFrance received the $200,000 to build five tanks.
As for tanks that were already built for infantry and cavalry, they were used for quite some time. However, by May of 1936 it became obvious that further use of these tanks was not economically feasible. The tanks were removed from service and installed as targets on shooting ranges. The only tank to survive to this day is #2 Tornado.
Despite this sad finale, it's hard to call Christie's tank bad. A victim of intrigue in its own home country, the M1931 became the progenitor of the cruiser tank class. This tank was a subject of imitation: BT, T-34, British Cruiser tanks, all of these vehicles are direct descendants of Christie's design. As for the coil spring suspension, it is used to this day. One may often hear the opinion that this suspension is only suitable for light tanks, but these «experts» should look at the Israeli Merkava tank and try to figure out what part of the almost 70 ton tank they consider light.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- National Archives and Records Administration
- Russian State Military Archive
- T.3 Christie: Armour in Profile #4, Peter Chamberlain, Steveson Pugh, Once Read Books, 1967
- Sherman: A History of the American Medium Tank, R. P. Hunnicutt, Presidio, 1978
- Stuart: A History of the American Light Tank Volume I, R. P. Hunnicutt, Presidio, 1992
- A Yankee Inventor and the Military Establishment: The Christie Tank Controversy, George F. Hofmann, Military Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 1 February 1975
- Author's photo archive