The fighting in July-August of 1939 near the Khalkhin-Gol river was the Red Army's first real large engagement of the 1930s. The battle at Lake Hasan in 1938 was also fierce, but it was not comparable to Khalkhin-Gol. Khalkhin-Gol was also the first real test of strength for the Japanese Imperial Army as they, especially their tank units, had yet to face an enemy like the Red Army. During the fighting, some amount of Japanese armoured vehicles were captured by the Red Army. One of them was a Ha-Go tank from the 4th Tank Regiment, which was later closely studied in the USSR. What impression did Soviet engineers get from the Ha-Go?
Results of a Botched Attack
Both sides used their newest armoured vehicles during the battle of Khalkhin-Gol. From the Soviet side, the conflict was the first time the BT-7 tank and the BA-10 and BA-20 armoured cars saw battle. Several of these were captured by the Japanese. A captured BT-7 with a conical turret gave the Japanese some ideas. After familiarizing themselves with it, the Japanese began working on an improved version of the Type 97 medium tank, more often known as the Shinhoto Chi-Ha.
The battle at the border of Mongolia and Manchuria, known in Japan as the Nomonhan Incident, marked the debut of many Japanese fighting machines as well. Here, medium Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks first saw battle, as well as many Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks. Out of the 87 tanks in the Kwantung Army, 35 of them were of this type.
Developed in 1933-34 at the Sagami arsenal, the Type 95 was the first Japanese tank of a new generation. The concept of a fast tank with a low hull, two-stroke diesel engine, and Tomio Hara's suspension became the basis for subsequent Japanese tanks. A good design, simplicity, and ruggedness made the Ha-Go the most numerous Japanese wartime tank. The Ha-Go's characteristics were close to those of the T-26, a tank that was considered obsolete on all counts by 1939.
When elements of the Kwantung Army under command of Lieutenant General Masaomi Yasuoka attacked on July 3rd, 1939, their main striking force were the 3rd and 4th Tank Regiments. They were opposed by BA-10 armoured cars of the 9th Armoured Brigade and BT-5 tanks from the 2nd Battalion of the 11th Tank Brigade.
The result of the attack by the Japanese tank armada was rather sad. Following Soviet reconnaissance armoured cars, the strike force fell into a trap. Dug in BA-10s methodically shot up approaching Japanese tanks. A shot destroyed the Chi-Ha belonging to the commander of the 3rd Tank Regiment, Colonel Kietaki Yoshimaru, killing him.
In total, armoured car crews claimed 19 tanks, and the BT-5s claimed 6. Lieutenant Alymov's platoon distinguished itself, not only knocking out 2 tanks, but helping infantry from the 149th Rifle Regiment tow a captured vehicle to the rear. This was Lieutenant Ito's Ha-Go from the 4th Tank Regiment.
The battles of July 3rd were a catastrophe for Japanese tankers. Overall, they lost between 41 and 44 tanks, 70 men killed, and 5 more missing. On July 5th, the regiments were recalled and on July 9th Masaomi Yasuoka was removed from command. Photographs of Lieutenant Ito's captured tank appeared in Soviet newspapers, dealing a serious blow to Japan's ego.
The captured tank was delivered to the Armoured Vehicle Scientific Research Institute (NIIBT) towards the winter of 1939. By April of 1941, their proving grounds held two Type 93 tanks, which were used to make one working tank. These were really Type 92 tanks, the Ha-Go's direct ancestor. Before studying the new trophy, it had to be repaired. According to documents, the axle bearings on one of the road wheels were destroyed, the wiring was damaged, and the exhaust pipe was punctured. Another tank arrived along with the intact Ha-Go, and it was used for parts. That tank burned up, so it could not be repaired.
The tank was completely disassembled during its repair, the first stage of study. This process was complicated by the fact that there were no instructions or spare parts. Only the jack was present out of the original instruments, so the proving grounds staff had their work cut out for them. Nevertheless, they completed their task, and by December of 1939, the Japanese tank was running again.
Since the original lights were lost, Soviet ones had to be installed instead, as well as a Soviet horn. The condition of the engine was poor, so mobility trials were not held. The engine was studied on a testing stand in a laboratory, allowing the researchers to gauge its characteristics, which matched the officially claimed ones.
During disassembly and study, additional information was obtained. The tank was produced by Mitsubishi in May of 1937, and had a serial number of 51. Like other Ha-Go tanks that fought at Khalkhin-Gol, this tank differed from regular Ha-Go tanks. The first trials in 1935 revealed one unpleasant detail regarding the use of the Ha-Go in Manchuria. The tank's suspension behaved well on hard surfaces, but once in the steppe, the lifespan of its bogeys dropped drastically. This was caused by many small bumps in the steppes that hammered away at the bogeys and quickly destroyed them.
The solution of the problem was rather unusual. An additional smaller road wheel was installed in between the two large ones to absorb the shocks. After trials that showed this «Manchurian» solution to be functional, the design was put into production. This type of Ha-Go was not used by the Japanese anywhere outside the Kwantung Army.
Another peculiarity of the captured tank was the Type 91 machinegun. This weapon, based on the Type 11 infantry machinegun, was called «6.5 mm Hotchkiss type machinegun» in Soviet documents. This title was not far from the truth, as Kijirō Nambu used the Hotchkiss Mle.1909 machinegun as a starting point when he designed the gun. Like the infantry version, it was fed from Arisaka Type 38 rifle clips. The design was not the greatest, and by the time the war in the Pacific began, Japanese tanks were re-equipped with improved Type 97 machineguns.
«Cannot be considered a modern tank»
Due to the poor condition of the engine, the NIIBT specialists began composing a technical description of the Japanese tank in lieu of mobility trials. They began in January of 1940 and finished in March. The document is rather interesting, as not a single early Ha-Go survived to this day, especially not one with a Manchurian suspension.
The Ha-Go was a rather interesting design. Despite the fact that the Japanese tank industry lagged behind during the years of WWII, it's hard to call the tank primitive. All armament was equipped with optical sights, which was not practiced by every tank building nation at the time. The observation devices were not primitive either. Even though they look like ordinary slits from the outside, on the inside they were protected by bulletproof glass. This solution was also not used on every tank at the time.
The ergonomics deserve a special mention. The small Ha-Go was surprisingly roomy on the inside. This was especially true for the tank's commander, tho also acted as the gunner and loader. The ammunition racks were placed in such a way that it was very convenient to use them. The driver had satisfactory visibility. The tank was coated with asbestos from the inside, not just the fighting compartment, but the engine compartment as well.
However, the NIIBT staff were interested more in the design features of the tank rather than the comfort of its crew. According to them, the layout of the Ha-Go was similar to that of the T-26, which is correct, but it would be more correct to refer to the T-26's ancestor, the Vickers Mk.E. As for the shape of the hull, it, according to the specialists, reminded them of the T-18. This was especially true for the sides. The rear «was closed to Renault tanks of the second series."
The thickness of the armour was about the same as on the Type 92 tank (called Type 94 in the report). In some places, it was even thinner than on its predecessor, compensated by sloping. The armour was designed to withstand rifle caliber bullets. This was fine for the mid-30s, but this was March of 1940. The USSR already accepted the KV and T-34 into service, and the replacement of the T-26 was in development. The Winter War proved that bulletproof armour was no longer enough. It was not surprising that the examiners were disappointed by the tank's armour.
The suspension was of some interest. Compared to the Type 92 cavalry tank, it was a completely different design. The Hara suspension was more progressive than the «Kletrack tractor type» suspension used on its predecessor. According to the specialists, the move from small metallic road wheels to large rubberized road wheels was caused by an attempt to reduce noise, as well as influence from the European tank building school. To be fair, Tomio Hara designed the suspension independently, and it was unlike that of any foreign tank.
A separate report was written on the engine. The design of the diesel engine was rather original. The engine block was not cast, but welded. The engine was two-stoke and air cooled. The Ha-Go was the first massed produced Japanese tank with a two-stroke diesel engine. The sizeable powerplant gave the tank good power (almost 18 hp/ton). The decision to install a powerful engine for such a small tank was made because the tank was initially developed for cavalry, but the NIIBT specialists had their own opinion on this matter:
«The tank uses an air cooled diesel engine with an output of 110 hp (measured on a stand). An air cooled 110 hp diesel engine on a 7 ton tank has benefits in all categories: performance, fuel economy, fire safety, and range are all improved. The engine is bulky and was obviously not designed for this tank. The engine does not fit vertically into the engine compartment, and has to be installed tilted to the left on a special frame."
The turret was deemed analogous to that of the T-18 tank, even though it was completely original. Conclusions regarding the armament were odd as well. The tank was recorded as having a Hotchkiss 37 mm gun, even though the Type 94 37 mm gun had nothing to do with the French design. The gun was also indicated as having no elevation mechanism, but the way it was installed, the mechanism was not needed. The gun was aimed with a shoulder stock, and due to how well it was balanced, there were no problems with this design. There was also the ability to aim the gun a few degrees to each side without moving the turret. This feature migrated to other Japanese tanks.
Regarding observation devices, it was written that a large amount of vision slits provided 360 degree vision. On the other hand, this made the tank vulnerable to splash. The fact that the vision slits could be covered with armoured screens and that the driver's vision slits were protected with armoured glass was omitted.
«Overall, the tank belongs to the group of light, non-amphibious tanks, with weak armour and armament, and low top speed. The design, armament, and armour of the tank cannot be compared to modern tanks and is at the level of the T-18, where the T-18 has an advantage in armour and the Mitsubishi has a better engine.
The technological standard of the tank and the quality of the finish is low. Many parts of the tank are made from aluminium, which, even with the crude production, reduces the weight of the tank.
The sides of the tank are covered in asbestos from the inside, similar to the 12-ton Vickers. The diesel engine is accessible from the fighting compartment. During travel, an engineer can be placed in the engine compartment, who can also serve as a spare driver or machinegunner.
All components of the tank are easy to install, and have simpler attachments compared to the T-26, which shortens the time required to assemble or disassemble the tank for repairs.
The turret traverse mechanism has a friction clutch in addition to free travel. The mechanism is very compact and can be used in armoured cars.
All rivets and bolts have bulletproof heads. The rivet bodies are regular and not bulletproof."
Only three components were deemed interesting by the NIIBT specialists. One was the turret traverse mechanism, which could be used in light tanks and armoured cars. The second was the separator of the turret ring ball bearings. The third was a hidden button for communicating with the crew, disguised as a rivet on the rear of the hull. Later, the composition of the road wheels was studied, and a recommendation was made to make prototype tires matching the Japanese composition.
On one hand, the comparison with the T-18 is unfair, as the Japanese tank was a more progressive design than the first Soviet tank, which had many drawbacks, some of which were unsolvable. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue with the fact that the armour was hopelessly obsolete. A high caliber machinegun would be a deadly opponent for the tank. The Ha-Go could even be penetrated by a rifle bullet from close range, as was observed during the fighting at Shumshu in 1945.
As of April 1st, 1941, Type 95 #51 was still on the NIIBT proving grounds. The condition of the tank was good, and it was expected that it would be placed in the museum. After the start of the Great Patriotic War, the tank's trail grows cold. The tank currently on display at Patriot Park with serial number #1958 is a late production tank. It was captured in August of 1945 in China and arrived at the NIIBT proving grounds on October 14th, 1945 from Harbin, along with tanks #1964 and 1967. According to documentation, it was the most complete of the three. The other two tanks were likely used up for spare parts. On November 16th, two more tanks arrived from Mukden with serial numbers #4348 and #4245. Their fate is unknown, but it is likely that they were scrapped.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Russian State Military Archive
- Central Archives of the Russian Ministry of Defence
- Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents