M1917 Tank

While Canada had experimented with armoured vehicles in the First World War, most notably machine-gun armed armoured cars, experience with tanks had been extremely limited. A single tank battalion had been authorized but was never trained in time to see action on the Western Front. Other units in the U.K. formed a fledgling Canadian Tank Corps shortly after the war's end. They were demobilized. Canada enquired about the possibility of obtaining tanks for its army at home during the Winnipeg General Strike, but lost interest after the conflict was resolved. Canada's only armoured vehicles for the next decade would be two Autocars that were repatriated at the conclusion of hostilities in Europe.1

While Canadian officers did not have any opportunity to train on tanks at home, they did keep up on theory, following the writings of theoreticians like J.F.C. Fuller. In the 1930s, future leaders like Guy Simonds and E.L.M. Burns, both corps commanders in the Second World War, exchanged thoughts on armoured warfare in the pages of Canadian Defence Quarterly, despite never having commanded formations with tanks in them.2 A purchase of a dozen tracked machine-gun carriers at the start of the 1930s, and the beginning of mechanization for artillery and infantry units, was a major step forward in the modernization of the Canadian Militia, and the cavalry began to experiment with motorized vehicles in 1935 with the adoption of two prototype armoured cars.

In 1935, experimental tanks based on the Caterpillar Diesel 40 Tractor, were considered for purchase, but deemed unsuitable and the General Supply Company of Canada sold them instead to the U.S. Marines and to Afghanistan. The next year, six of Canada's infantry regiments were officially designated as tank battalions and the Canadian Tank School was opened. In 1938 the school was renamed Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicles School and transferred to Borden, Ontario. There were still no tanks, just carriers, and Vickers machine guns taken from the 1935 Armoured Cars. It was not until the outbreak of war in September 1939 that acquisition of tanks became a reality. Plans were made to tool up Canadian industry to start producing modern tanks not only for the Canadian Militia, but for Britain as well.

In the meantime, Canada had obtained a Light Dragon Mk III from the British, taking delivery in March 1937, and purchased two more tanks in 1938. The Mk VIB Vickers light tanks were in first class condition in February 1939 but ammunition was scarce and spare parts were a concern, and in particular track pins. By the outbreak of war, Fourteen Vickers tanks were on inventory, and the Canadian AFV Training Centre, as the school in Borden had been redesignated, had a two-hundred man training cadre.

Little useful training was carried out in the opening months of the war, and what was achieved was done clandestinely. The fall of France, and the shock of German armour successes, changed minds as to the necessity of the role of Canadian armour. In August 1940 the Canadian Armoured Corps was formed, and several tank formations were authorized during the year.

In June 1940, desperate for training aids, Colonel Frank Worthington drew the attention of National Defence Headquarters to a lot of surplus M1917 6-ton tanks in the United States. The tank was a license built American copy of the French Renault FT-17, sometimes simply referred to as "Renault" by the Canadians. In accordance with the Permanent Joint Board on Defence, which permitted the sale of items to Canada for North American defence, even though the U.S. was neutral in the war with Germany, the U.S. agreed to sell 250 of the tanks, which had a crew of two, top speed of 5 miles per hour, and armament of either 37mm gun or a .30 calibre Browning machine gun. On 21 September 1940, Worthington had negotiated a deal, and the first vehicles were at Camp Borden for issue to Canadian units by 8 October. In all, 236 M1917s were received.3

Journalist Peter Worthington wrote the following:


My father, then a colonel, negotiated the purchase of the tanks (urban legend has it that he arranged the deal with General George Patton), and got them as cheap as scrap iron. The Opposition raised the purchase in Parliament, but the matter died when word came that the train delivering 1,500 tons of scrap metal had arrived at the Camp Borden Iron Foundry.

Discreet silence prevailed thereafter.

We army brats, who swarmed Camp Borden, were awed and admiring of these Renault tanks which, even then, didn't much resemble the German tanks we saw in newsreels and newspaper photographs.

One of the techniques my father adapted for training, was using the tanks to stop local farmers who poached deer in the Borden area. In those days, Camp Borden was mostly sand, scrub bushes and forest. There was the air force bombing range and wildlife including wolves was plentiful; civilians were prohibited from entering the area unless on business.

In deer season, poachers thrived. My father designated them as the enemy, and Renault tanks scoured the area as a training exercise to catch poachers.

One of my cherished memories is walking down the concrete road through camp to the one-room school near the Air Force area one fall day, and seeing a Renault tank emerge from the bush area with a deer carcass draped over the tanks gun, and two disgruntled poachers in plaid shirts marching in front with their hands on top of their heads. Pretend prisoners of war.

The soldier in the tank's turret was beaming like an Olympic champion.

The officers' mess and the sergeants' mess subsequently dined on venison.
4


Arrival of Renault FT light tanks supplied by the United States Army to the Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicle Training Centre, Camp Borden, Ontario, October 1940.


Colonel F.F. Worthington inspecting Renault FT light tanks supplied by the United States Army to the Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicle Training Centre, Camp Borden, Ontario, October 1940.


Renault FT tanks supplied by the United States Army arriving at the Canadian Armoured Corps Training Centre, Camp Borden, Ontario, October 1940. Vehicle in the foreground is a command tank variant lacking a turret.

Service

The Renaults were used for training until 1943, with the Canadian Armoured Corps Training Centre retaining a number and the balance going to individual armoured units. The slow speed of the vehicle made tactical training difficult, and the main function of the vehicle was to familiarize crews in driving and maintaining tracked vehicles. Tank gunnery was also taught, with the assistance of U.S. supplied weapons and ammunition. In 1943, the vehicles were sold off to private industry, or for use on farms.5

Survivors

Only two M1917 tanks are known to survive; one is located at Canadian Forces Base Borden.

Another example was located in Alberta being used as a log skidder and purchased by the Canadian War Museum in 1997. Restoration work began in 2008 with financial support provided by private donor Richard Iorweth Thorman and additional funds allocated by the charitable organization Friends of the Canadian War Museum. The vehicle was in poor shape; the upper hull and turret had been removed and discarded. M1917 tracks and running gear salvaged from the Kingston, Ontario rifle ranges were mated with the surviving hull, and turret and remaining hull pieces were fabricated in Ottawa by DEW Engineering.

According to W.E. Storey, CF historian and Friend of the Canadian War Museum:

The M1917 Six Ton Tank is an important addition to the CWM collection as it is this vehicle that formed the basis of the modern Canadian Armoured Corps. It is this Corps that served throughout the Second World War, the Korean War, numerous UN missions and as well as recent NATO combat operations in Afghanistan.6


M1917 Tank added to the collection of the Canadian War Museum in August 2012. Photograph courtesy of W.E. Storey.

Notes

  1. Lucy, Roger V. Early Armour in Canadian Service (Service Publications, Ottawa, ON, 2009) ISBN 978-1-894581-54-7 pp.3-7
  2. Granatstein, J.L. The Generals: The Canadian Army's Senior Commanders in the Second World War (Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd., Toronto, ON, 1993) ISBN 0-7737-2730-2 p.151
  3. Lucy, Ibid, pp.8-21
  4. Worthington, Peter "Tanks for the Memories", Calgary Sun, Sunday, August 19, 2012
  5. Lucy, Ibid, p.21
  6. http://www.network54.com/Forum/28173/message/1345222505/Restored+M1917+Tank+at+CWM

 

 


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