“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” ― H.L. Mencken,
… and at times you want more than just a mean look and the occasional sandbag to be between you and harms way. Sometimes you want to call on the thunder of armour. However, you might not have the power of the military-industrial complex behind you. You might only have the local scrapyard, oxy-torches, sheet metal, and an innovative spirit.
Currently the world’s undersupplied warfighters are inventing all kinds of home-brew armour options, and we’ve been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them over the last few years. And I must say, we’re lucky to have only been catching glimpses and not rolling into battle in them. Let’s check a few out.
This is the SHAM II, a proudly “100 percent made in Syria” improvised armored vehicle. Put together by Syrian rebels of the Al-Ansar brigade, in Bishqatin, four kms west of Aleppo, it came to the world’s attention on December 8, 2012.
Built on an old car chassis and covered in 25mm thick steel walls, it was reportedly able to resist up to 23mm cannon fire. At only 2m wide and 4m long, this is no Abrams. It is, however, fitted with a remote-operated (by a hotwired Playstation remote of all things) 7.62mm machine gun on top. It also has five cameras that give the humans inside a view from all angles.
In one of the original interviews, its primary operator said ‘This is my brother, a trained engineer, who got the idea, we got a car, left its diesel motor on the chassis and built the engine. Not including from the gun, the vehicle costs about £6,200($10,000).” This gives you an understanding of what these folks are doing with their spare time.
Here’s another couple of examples, from the Kurdish front. These improvised fighting vehicle are converted tractors and trucks fitted with sheet metal. Kurdish troops needed to construct their own armoured vehicles to check the advance of Daesh fighters rolling in captured Iraqi armour, and converting tractors and other industrial and farm vehicles was their best option.
Ugly, unregulated and probably not very survivable, the improvised tanks being fielded in places like Syria have one thing going for them: the steel balls of their crew.
I haven’t been able to find much in the way of battlefield records for any of these. But I also haven’t found pictures or stories of them being damages or repaired, so I’m guessing they get killed pretty hard when push comes to shove, especially with all the wire-guided missile footage going around. Nor can I believe they ever do well going toe-to-toe with modern purpose-built armour.
One thing is common to all of them. They are usually well thought out, and obviously had a lot of care and effort put into their construction even if the paint jobs suggest otherwise. There is some serious welding, fitting and outfitting going into these things. But it’s important to note that these aren’t the first improvised tanks out there, not by a long shot.
Way back, during the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, the British Army constructed something from a three-ton truck commandeered from the Dublin Guinness brewery, to which they fitted an armoured body built from the smokeboxes of several steam trains. The body had gun ports cut in it for riflemen to fire through and was painted with black spots that acted as dummy ports to confuse snipers. A steel box protected the truck driver and steel plating covered the truck radiator. Sound familiar? Convergent evolution. Apparently its construction took less than a day at the Great Southern Railways workshop. Even more interesting, after the rising the train parts were returned to the railway and the truck returned to its owners. Ireland was never the same again, however.
There are also these examples of war-time improvisation. One from New Zealand is the Bob Semple Tank. Built up from a farming tractor, the design was a response to a call for a home-grown armour solution, where there was no industry to support it. Unfortunately, it was reported to be too tall, unstable and top-heavy, and vibrated dangerously due to the overwhelmed chassis and crude tractor suspensions and gearing. It was also very slow (lagging behind normal infantry pace), and the improvised corrugated armor would have stood no chance against the solid 37 mm (1.46 in) shots from the average Japanese tank of the time. Accurate fire was also impossible from the six sponson mounted Bren guns. After a few weeks the Army rejected it, and all such “tanks” were dismantled and converted back to tractors.
On the Eastern Front, however, the Russian army had militarised a number of tractor designs, including the what became known as the NI Odessa Tank which was a much more “tanky” tank. Based on an agricultural tractor frame, these were refitted directly in the factories already tooled to make them, leading to a far more professional and reproducible vehicle. The idea came from factory workers who decided to build a fighting vehicle of their own design. As well as armour plating, they added a traversable turret with whatever was available, including including sub-turrets from T-26 Model 1931 tanks, new turrets with 37 mm Model 15R mountain guns or 45 mm anti-tank guns. These made for quite a formidable improvised tank, and in the end a whole battalion of them were produced.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the Killdozer.
In June 2004, Marvin Heemeyer Took his creation, later dubbed the Killdozer, on a rampage in Colorado. The improvised tank was built up from a Komatsu D355A bulldozer with armor plating covering the cabin, engine and parts of the tracks. Sandwiched between sheets of tool steel and the tractor body was a 5000-psi Quikrete concrete mix, over 30 cm thick in places. SWAT and state troopers found the vehicle to be impervious to small arms fire and resistant to explosives; three external explosions and more than 200 rounds of ammunition were fired at Killdozer to no effect.
For visibility the bulldozer was fitted with several video cameras linked to two monitors mounted on the vehicle’s dashboard; the cameras were protected on the outside by 76 mm (3″) shields of bullet-resistant plastic. Heemeyer even thought to put fans in place to blow dust away from the video cameras, ensuring clear lines of sight. Three gun ports, fitted for a .50 caliber sniper rifle, a .308 semi-automatic, and a .22 long rifle were all later found in the vehicle. The ports were also fitted with a half-inch-thick steel plate. This was a well thought out, planned and executed construction.
However, Heemeyer apparently had no intention of leaving the cabin once he entered it. It seemed that the last parts of the armour were lowered over the tractor by crane, sealing him in. In the end, after crushing a number of buildings and other property but with no innocent life lost, the mighty Killdozer became mired when its treads slipped into a basement of one of the buildings it was crushing.
Want to see more Tank Week?
So, there you have it, wild and wooly improvised tanks from around the world. When you next button up, I hope you are sitting pretty in your M1A1, Challenger 2 or what-have-you. But if the going is bad, and it’s time to spit on your hands, raise the black flag, and get in there, take some inspiration from all those other fighters out there in their home-brewed fighting vehicles. Shiny and Chrome, Witnessed!
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