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Tanks of the Rising Sun Part III — The Workhorse Tanks

In case you missed: Intro, Part I, Part II

By the mid to late 1930’s the Imperial Japanese Army began to realize that their fleet of Type 89 medium tanks and small little tankettes were deficient and becoming obsolete. The Type 89 was too slow for mobile mechanized warfare while tankettes were under armored and could bring limited weaponry to bear. Thus resulted the creation of Japan’s two primary workhorse tanks, the Type 95 Ha Go light tank and the Type 97 Chi Ha medium tank. Both would become the most numerous tanks found on battlefields in the Pacific.

As early as 1933 the IJA came to the conclusion that tankettes were not sufficient for modern combat and that a proper light tank was needed. In 1936 the IJA adopted the Type 95 Ha Go light tank, which would become Japan’s most common light tank throughout the Second Sino Japanese War and World War II.

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The Type 95 was 7.4 ton tank with a 120 horsepower 6 cylinder diesel engine which could propel it at a maximum speed of 45 kph. Small and nimble, it served the light tank role well, and because of it’s small size was ideal for combat in dense Pacific jungles. It’s 37mm gun, while smaller than the Type 89’s 57mm gun, provided a higher velocity, giving it more penetrating power and thus making it more capable of combat with other armored vehicles. Secondary armament consisted of two 6.5mm machine guns, one in the hull and another in the turret. Later secondary armament would be upgraded to two 7.7mm machine guns. Like the Type 89 the Type 95 had an assymetrical turret with the machine gun mounted in the rear.  One problematic flaw in the Type 95 was it’s hand cranked turret, which had a sizeable gap between the hull and the turret. Crafty American GI’s learned that the turret could be disabled by jamming a foreign object, such as a bayonet or even a rock, into the turret ring.  In future tank designs the Japanese would do away with the asymmetrical turret because of this flaw. Armor was relatively thin, with 12mm of frontal armor, a 30mm gun mantlet, 12mm side armor, and 10mm rear armor. While this may seem like very thin armor, for combat in China it was more than sufficient. Crew consisted of 3; a commander who also served as gunner and loader, a driver, and machine gunner/radioman. The Type 95 would operate well in China, having to face against infantry and small numbers of light tanks or tankettes, however it’s defficiencies would be laid bare at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol against the Soviets.

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The first Japanese clash against American tanks occured in December of 1941 during the invasion of The Philipinnes when a platoon of Type 95’s ambushed a platoon of M3 Stuarts. Despite the M3 Stuart being an arguably superior tank, the Japanese crews were better trained, combat experienced, and had the element of suprise. As proven by a US Army study conducted post-war, in most tank vs. tank engagements the winning tank is the one who shoots first. As tank expert Nicholas Moran puts it, the one who shoots first is usually waiting in ambush and has the time to take a well aimed shot, while the crew of the tank recieving that shot is having “a significant emotional event”. Regardless of this early victory, Allied introduction of of heavier tanks such as the British Matilda and American Sherman brought a swift end to Japanese tank dominance in the Pacific and the Type 95 would be particularly outclassed. During most of World War II Type 95’s were easy cannon fodder for invading Allied forces.

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In 1938 the IJA adopted a new tank as a replacement for aging and obsolete Type 89, the Type 97 Chi Ha. The Type 97 was a 14.7 ton medium tank powered by a 170 hp 12 cylinder diesel engine, giving it a maximum speed of 38 kph. This was a great improvement compared to the Type 89 which had a top speed of 28 kph. Armor was also improved, with 25mm of armor all around. The Type 97 Chi Ha used the same 57mm low velocity gun as the Type 89, with the intention of the Type 97 being used only for infantry support.  Secondary armament consisted of a single hull mounted 7.7mm machine gun. The tank was operated by a 4 man crew; a commander who acted as gunner, a loader, a driver, and machine gunner/radioman. 

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Like the Type 95 Ha Go the Type 97 Chi Ha first saw combat in China during the Second Sino Japanese War and the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. After Germany blitzed across Europe in 1939-1940 the IJA decided that it needed to change it’s armored warfare doctrine. Instead of tanks supporting the infantry, the Germans had proved that tanks were a potent offense weapon in their own right, and thus infantry should be supporting tanks. In addition, Japan’s short conflict with the Soviet Union and entry in World War II proved that Japanese tanks needed to be able to better handle combat engagements with other tanks. Thus in 1942 an improved model was adopted called the Type 97 Chi Ha Kai.  

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The low velocity 57mm gun was replaced with a longer barreled 47mm gun. While the 47mm gun was of smaller caliber, it had a higher muzzle velocity giving it more penetration against armor. The new uprade gave the Type 97 a fighting chance against American Shermans and British Matildas, but just barely. Regardless the Type 97 was still greatly outclassed by Allied tanks and were almost helpless against them in a head to head combat engagement. At best the Type 97′s 47mm gun might be able to penetrate the side or rear armor of a Sherman, but I doubt any Sherman were ever knocked out by a Chi ha Kai.

The Type 95 and  Type 97 would serve as the backbone of Imperial Japanese armored forces, with around 2,300 Type 95’s producted, 1,162 Type 97 Chi Ha’s were produced, as well as 930 Type 97 Chi Ha Kai’s. In the next few posts I’m going to briefly cover some interesting varients of the Type 95 and Type 97.  Then I’m going cover how the Japanese attempted to catch up to Allied tank superiority.

To Be Continued…