TKS - Poland's Tiny Tankette That Faced the Blitzkrieg - Tank Historia

TKS – Poland’s Tiny Tankette That Faced the Blitzkrieg

The TKS is a Polish creation and one of the cutest little vehicles ever made. Although they are smaller than a car and armed with a machine gun, these little machines were often all Poland had to fight the Germans after they invaded in 1939.

It is a type of vehicle known as a tankette. Tankettes had some tank-like features, like armor, tracks and weapons but on a much smaller scale, hence the name. Many were smaller than cars and weighed about as much as an SUV.

They were fast, nimble and hard to spot, making them ideal scouting vehicles.

Despite its inherent limitations, the TKS was involved in mismatched battles against German tanks during the invasion of Poland, earning it a legendary spot in the history of tank design.

Contents

Background

The introduction of tanks during the First World War solved some critical issues on the battlefield, like being to advance under fire, but they also highlighted new problems.

Yes, tanks were able to advance under enemy fire, but infantry were still left exposed. This led to tanks being encircled and destroyed even after successfully breaking through the enemy’s line.

Mark IV near bomb crater.
The terrain and enemy fire prevented troops from advancing and protecting tanks, often leading to their demise.

Military planners needed a way of bringing troops along to assist the tanks. Today this problem is solved with armored personnel carriers, but back then one solution proposed was the tankette.

These machines would carry one or two men, enough armor to stop small arms fire, a machine gun to attack enemy troops and roll on tracks so they could follow the tanks. The idea persisted into the 1920s and led to a number of designs.

The most significant and important tankette was designed by British engineers John Carden and Vivian Loyd, imaginatively named the Carden-Loyd. The Carden-Loyd came in a few different versions, the most pominent of which was the Carden-Loyd Mark VI.

Carden-Loyd Mark VI tankette.
A Carden-Loyd Mark VI at The Tank Museum, Bovington.

It weighed just 1.5 tons and was protected by a maximum of 9 mm of armor, had a good top speed of 30 mph and a crew of two.

Sherman tanks driving through Norma...
Sherman tanks driving through Normandy

The Carden-Loyd Mark VI was exported all over the world and would serve as the inspiration and basis for other nations’ tankettes, including the TKS.

Development

Poland received a Carden-Loyd in 1929 and were impressed with their tiny size and mobility, which made them ideal for reconnaissance missions. They purchased 10 Carden-Loyd Mark VIs and shortly after acquired a license to build them themselves.

Poland found some areas of the Carden-Loyd’s design that could be improved upon, particularly the suspension. Instead of updating the existing Carden-Loyd Mark VI, Poland produced their own versions instead in 1930.

TKF tankette in Belgrade.
The TK-3 had a more simple frontal shape than the TKS. Shown here is a TKF, essentially a TK-3 with an updated engine. Image by Pudelek CC BY-SA 3.0.

A series of three prototypes were made, loosely based on the Carden-Loyd Mark VI; the TK-1, TK-2 and TK-3. They had improved suspension, a maximum armor thickness of 8 mm and fully enclosed fighting compartments that contained a crew of two. The TK-3 was accepted into production in 1931, with 300 being produced in total.

In 1933 an improved version was introduced that improved almost every aspect of the TK-3. This was the TKS, the focus of this article.

The TKS

Im comparison to the TK-3, the TKS only really shared the same hull. The tankette’s frontal armor was thickened, its tracks were wider and the entire fighting compartment superstructure was redesigned with a new shape.

The TKS’ armor was well designed, incorporating irregular shapes and angles that increased its effectiveness. The lower front plate was 6 mm thick and slightly angled, and joined to another 6 mm thick plate that sloped upwards towards the fighting compartment.

A TKS in the Kubinka Tank Museum.
The TKS’ armor was bolted to an internal frame. Image by Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 3.0.

The front of the fighting compartment was 10 mm thick and slightly angled back. The sides and rear were 8 mm thick.

The main armament of the TKS was a 7.92 mm wz.25 Hotchkiss machine gun, located on the right of the superstructure. This was operated by the gunner, who also doubled as the commander. To his left was the driver.

BANNER

Between the two was the engine, a four cylinder Polski FIAT-122 that produced a jaw-dropping 46 horsepower. This was actually enough though, as the TKS weighed just under 3 tons and was therefore able to reach 25 mph on road.

TKS interior.
The interior of the TKS. The engine can be seen in the center, which was situated between the driver and gunner.

One of the most interesting features of the TKS, perhaps with more significance than even the tankette itself, was its use of a reversible tank periscope. This device, created by the Polish inventor Rudolf Gundlach, gave the user a 360 degree view through a periscope.

The device was later sold to Vickers-Armstrong, who designated it the Tank Periscope MK.IV and would end up on virtually all notable Allied tanks of the war, including the Sherman, Cromwell and Churchill. The Soviet Union also used it on tanks like the T-34 after capturing Polish vehicles that had it fitted.

A TKS gunner/commander.
The periscope can be seen here above the gun and below the crewman. Image by Silar CC BY-SA 4.0.

The TKS was the first design to use the periscope. Units fitted with the periscope had their exhausts at the rear lowered to give the commander a better view.

While the TKS did pretty much everything initially asked of it, the idea of what would in happen if it came face to face with enemy tanks hung in the air. The Polish had been aware of this since the TK-3, and had already considered a few options.

Fitting a 20 mm Auto-Cannon

A 13.2 mm machine gun was investigated but it didn’t meet the desired armor piercing performance. In 1936 tests were conducted with a Swiss single-shot 20 mm cannon. The size and performance of the 20 mm caliber was satisfactory, but designers wanted a fully-automatic weapon.

Eventually a Polish-made 20 mm fully automatic cannon – the wz. 38 – was chosen for use on the TKS. It could fire 320 rounds per minute (not including reloading) and penetrate 40 mm of armor at 200 meters.

wz.38 auto-cannon.
A wz.38 cannon on an anti-aircraft mounting.

Even at 1,500 meters the wz. 38 could still punch through 15 mm of armor. This may seem trivial, but it was still enough to damage the Panzer III.

The 20 mm cannon was first fitted to a TK tankette in early 1939, and transformed the tiny little vehicle into quite an effective tank killer. It was small, quiet, easy to hide, mobile and, with the 20 mm cannon, now had the ability to knock out tanks.

Fitting the guns required a few modifications, but these were simple as the bolted armor could simply be removed.

TKS with 20 mm cannon.
A replica TKS fitted with the 20 mm wz.38.

80 TKSs and 70 TK-3s were selected for conversion to carry the 20 mm, but by this time the German invasion of Poland, which kicked off the Second World War, was only a few months away.

As a result, when Germany invaded on the 1st of September 1930 only aroumd 20 TKS tankettes were up-armed with the 20 mm gun.

Service

Between 1931 and 1937 Poland built around 300 TK-3 and 280 TKS tankettes. Due to a lack of documentation and the chaotic circumstances after the invasion, the exact movements and actions of the tankettes are unknown.

However as the most numerous armored tracked vehicle in Poland’s inventory at the time, these little tankettes were used extensively in the defense of the nation. On many occasions they were the only vehicles available to stand up to full-sized tanks.

Throughout mid-September TKS and TK-3s were involved in the brutal Battle of Bzura near Warsaw. In this desperate counter-offensive against the German invasion, cannon-armed TKSs managed to knock out an impressive number of German tanks.

Polish soldiers with their tankettes. Image by Fortepan.
Polish soldiers with their tankettes. Image by Fortepan.

In one engagement, a cannon-armed TKS (some sources state it was actually three) attacked and knocked out three German tanks in quick succession.

The Polish hero Edmund Roman Orlik likely knocked out many German tanks in his TKS during the invasion. According to Orlik, he knocked out more than seven German tanks with his tank’s 20 mm cannon.

Unfortunately though, despite their mammoth efforts lots of TKSs were lost – most were only armed with machine guns and were completely helpless against German tanks.

A TK-3 and TKS captured by the Germans.
A TK-3 (left) and a TKS (right) captured by the Germans.

Many were captured and repurposed by Germany, although they were mainly used for non-combat duties like policing and logistics. They were also used by Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and the USSR.

Today a handful of TKS and TK-3s survive, two of which run.

Read More The WWI Tank Bank: As Successful at Home as on the Battlefield

The TKS was born out of lessons learned in the First World War, designed for new requirements and eventually used in roles it was never meant to fill. It perfectly encapsulates Poland’s desperate defense after the invasion; operating against the odds in roles it wasn’t designed for by heroically brave crews, and still managing to pull off some impressive victories.