Authors: Brenthos and Mich_TATEJlb (EU server)
Note: This is an article about a tank museum located in Israel, and thus, contains information regarding the Israeli armed forces and their history, as displayed there. The writers are Israeli, and, though doing their best to present the information in a historically objective manner, cannot change their life perspective. If such information may be offensive to you, please consider those facts before reading the article. If you still wish to read it, please bear in mind that sarcasm and black humor are mandatory characteristic of all Israelis.
Being Israeli residents that also play World of Tanks, and have wide interest in military history in general, quickly enough led us to go to the nearest place where we could see as much tanks as we could.
No, not Gaza Strip.
We went to the tank museum in Latrun instead. We have been there before, but we wanted to know more, learn something new and interesting, so we contacted the museum to ask for a VIP tour. We told them we play a tank game on the computer, and got connected to the whole subject of tanks. After a few days, we received a call from Michael Mass, the vice-manager of the association that runs the museum. He was brief: “The answer is yes. You wrote a serious request, and I’ll be more than happy to fulfill your curiosity.” Here is the place to say, that the date was set in the beginning of June, and in no way is connected to the currently going fighting in Gaza and southern Israel. Though, we did have to run to the shelter once during our visit.
Anyway, here is a “short” summary of the interesting information we have gathered there, expanded with some historically relevant information we were directed to, from Wikipedia in Hebrew.
View of the Latrun police building and the memorial wall from one of the tanks on display. The Sherman on the tower that became the recognition sign of the museum can be seen on the right.
View from the balcony on the roof of the police building. The Merkava display is on the right.
Well, it is not even a museum officially. There is a non-profit organization under the name of “Yad Lashir’yon” (“Monument to Armor”), which is located in Latrun, at and around the old police station building, one of those built by the British mandate of Palestine around 1940. The building is a strategic point on the way to Jerusalem (when advancing from the Mediterranean shoreline).
The reason for choosing this location as their home is simple – the first battles fought by one of the first Israeli armored brigade (no. 7) were to capture this building – in 1948, with the establishment of the state. The 7th brigade, with the aid of other forces, fought 4 times against Arab Legionnaires (Jordanian forces) between the 25 May and the 18 July 1948. Each battle ended in a defeat, and Israel lost 168 soldiers and few armored cars and halftracks. The Arabs lost 2-20 men (exact number is not known), and had up to 40 wounded. The building was finally captured only on the 6th of June 1967, this time – without any losses on the Israeli side. Today, the building itself is a national heritage memorial. Shell and bullet hit marks can be still clearly seen on the walls of the building.
View to the police building from one of the Centurion tanks on display.
“Your heroism is armor to us / our friendship is eternity to you”. The memorial wall of the armored corps – the last plate on the left is disturbingly fresh. There are only names on the wall – no ranks or age. Only two days after our visit, two more names were to be added to this wall.
The window at Michael Mass’ office. The shelling damage is genuine.
Today it houses the installations of Yad Lashir’yon. The place is the central memorial and heritage center for the IDF armored corps. Many military ceremonies, such as training courses graduations, aside with civilian educational events and national holiday celebrations take place there. The huge amount of Israeli flags in the pictures, is due to such a ceremony that was about to be held there in a few days.
The organization has about 900 members, mostly ex-tankers who participate financially, but the place in Latrun is run only by 20 civilians and about 15 soldiers from the publicity unit, which is in charge of guided tours, educational content, visual documentation and security. The organization does not do restoration, and barely do preservation. Michael states that the last time they have even painted the tanks was about 17 years ago. And yet, he states that if he will hop in a T-55, put it in first gear and push it a little bit, it will start immediately. “This is the problem with the 55s” he says, and tells us a story about a soldier that got killed by a T-55 that started accidentally when rolling down a small hill, until smashing into the soldier and a parking Centurion.
Michael Mass is a retired Lt. Colonel (reserve), served in the armored corps on technical positions, and dealt mostly with T-54/55 tanks both during his service, and while working after finishing with military service. As far as we understood, he is in charge of the vehicle collection in Latrun. “Collection” is the exact term he uses. When we referred to Latrun as a museum, he showed us pictures from his visit to Overloon, and said – “this is a museum, with expositions, mock-ups, restored equipment and all that stuff”.
When you think of someone of his position, you must be visioning an over-patriotic Zionist, who devotes his life to the great good of the Jewish people. We were not exactly sure what kind of a man we would meet, but very quick we found out the simple truth – he is just another man that simply likes tanks. When one of us saw a cutaway of an APFSDS round on his table, and asked what was it made of (and note that this was the first sentence said after the ‘Hello, nice to meet you’), he started talking right away as if we knew each other for a long time.
A table of an experienced Israeli tank tech: A Menorah, tank shells, a bottle of beer, and a picture of distinguished Israeli military men.
But yet, there are some exhibits that allow us to call it a museum. For example, a Patton cut in half, to display the interior of an Israeli Patton (Magach):
This Patton model is aparently already in HD. ;)
A fume extractor cuttaway.
A sneak peek into the driver’s hatch.
Spaced armor added on the front of this Patton.
There is also a Centurion Mk VII (Shot), displayed in a similar manner:
And here is a comparison between “Regular Armor” (the upper plate) and “Modern Armor”. No explanation is provided, so we assume that “Modern” means rolled or forged. The plates are about 100-140mm thick, maybe even more then that. The upper hole is from a Sagger anti-tank missile, and the second one is from an AP shell (exact type not stated). This exhibit is not near the Merkava display, so we assume this refers to the armor of the Pattons that was modern for its time.
The first steps of the Israeli Armored Corps
As many IDF branches, the armored corps started as a service – the armored vehicles service for the “Palmach” (short for Plugot Machatz – the “Smite Companies”), on February the 24th 1948, and later were merged to the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) with its establishment. The first tank brigade was Brigade no. 8, under the command of Yitzhak Sadeh. The brigade consisted at first of two battalions: 81st, a “commando” battalion – basically a mechanized infantry battalion, which in turn consisted of two companies equipped with armored cars, two companies equipped with jeeps, and a fire support company; 82nd – The only tank battalion in the IDF, by July 1948, consisted of 4 mechanized companies (halftracks and armored cars), and two tank companies: Company Bet was equipped with two Cromwell tanks, stolen by two British tankers who “defected” to Israel, and one Sherman M4A3 tank; Company Vav was equipped with 10 Hotchkiss tanks. Such a division of forces was dictated by one simple fact – the Cromwell/Sherman tanks were manned by Anglo-sax members, who spoke English, and the Hotchkiss tanks were manned by Slavic Jews, speaking mostly Russian. This made radio communication simpler. The commander of the 82nd battalion was Felix Beatos, a Polish Jew, and he chose to mark the tanks with the only marking system he was familiar with – the one was used by the Nazi German forces in WW2. The use of this system can be seen on every photo of that era:
The only tank that does not fit in the system, is Cromwell 457 – the one stolen by the Scottish tank commander Harry McDonald and Irish tank driver Mike Flannigan. It is assumed that this number had some kind of personal significance to the two.
During its first steps, the Armored Corps used all they could gather, but later, a large scale steps were made to acquire as much tanks as possible from the leftovers of WW2. The large wartime leftover yards in Europe allowed for it, and quickly, amounts of Sherman tanks started arriving in Israel. When visiting Latrun, it is hard not to notice the fact Israel had made virtually anything of them: regular tanks, SPGs, APCs, Engineering vehicles, you name it.
One of the famous (well, at least it is mentioned on Wikipedia) stories on this topics, is the existence of the so-called Krupp Shermans – Shermans that were armed with a 75mm Krupp guns, instead of their destroyed guns. When asked about this, Michael Mass states that it is possible, but never has been proved or even checked, at least by Israeli researchers he knows of. The source states that the Krupp gun was to replace unusable guns on the vehicles. Michael adds that a lot of the Shermans received from the wartime leftover yards in Europe, had holes drilled in the base of their barrels by the Americans to make the gun unusable. This is the only reason he can see to replace the gun. But on this subject we do know, that those guns in Israeli service were fitted with metal rings around those holes, to block them. To him, he says, it sounds like a story that could sound good (Brenthos: Jews using German guns to fight their enemies), but there are a lot of such stories that are not true, we know about.
Actually, if you look at the picture of the Sherman on the previous page, you will be able to see the ring fitting on the gun.
Before proceeding onward to look at those Shermans, and what Israel have done to them, let us have a look at some other armored vehicles of that time on display in the museum:
Halftrack APC. Most of those also came from US WW2 Wartime leftover yards. The marking also matches the German scheme. The two diagonal lines are the mark of the 82nd battalion.
Marmon-Harrington Mk. 4 armored car
Heavily armored car
Armored Halftrack with multiple 81mm mortars installed inside it for heavy fire support
Bren carrier with a flamethrower. Those were captured from the Egyptians, during the War of Independence, and used extensively, especially in the capturing of the Negev desert (South of Israel).
The concept of operating armored cars persisted in the IDF also in later years:
Staghound armored car. The description says: “In 1952, the IDF equipped itself with about a dozen US-made Staghound Armored Cars with the intention of establishing a command reconnaissance battalion. The Staghounds were later sold to Nicaragua, where they took part in the 1979 Civil War.”
Panhard AML 90 armored car
The description says: “An advanced French armored car with 90mm cannon which fires hollow-charged (Brenthos: HEAT) cannon shells.
This armored car was chosen to serve in the IDF, in ‘Duchifat’ platoon, as ‘flying armor’ to serve the paratrooper forces. Two main advantages stood for the armored car: one – its ability to develop high velocities of up to 90km/h, the other – it’s light weight, making it air transportable in airplanes and heavy choppers. The platoon was founded in 1966; its warriors – all paratrooper division personnel – lead by a young talented officer, late captain Ehud Shani. The professions training and mobile forces operation techniques were acquired by the warriors during their training in the armor regiments.
The ‘Duchifat’ platoon, led by Captain Ehud Shani, took part in the Six-Day War in the ‘Har’el’ brigade on the path to Jerusalem and particularly in the battle for Tel-el-Full north to Jerusalem. In 1968 the platoon took part in the ‘Tofet’ (Brenthos: translates as ‘inferno’) operation in Karame, led by Amnon Lipkin – later IDF chief of staff.”
Brenthos: ‘Duchifat’ was not a platoon, but a reconnaissance unit (in the size of a platoon), that was attached to different brigades as situation required. Today, it grew to be one of the companies forming the Kfir (translates as ‘lion pup’) brigade, which operates exclusively in the west bank of the Jordan River (the occupied territories). Brenthos: If speaking of armored cars in WoT, this one looks like something that could fit very well.
A look at the tanks in early IDF service:
The abovementioned Hotchikiss tanks:
”Ten French made Hotchkiss H39 light tanks were purchased during the War of Independence and served as tremendous reinforcement for the IDF. These tanks, under the command of the late Major Felix Beatos, were incorporated in the “Slavic” company of Russian-speaking Jews of the 82nd battalion that took part in the ‘Danny’ operation to capture Lod Airport”.
Brenthos: Practically, this operation was the first successful operation involving armored forces, though was completed without much combat effort, thus making the battle for Latrun the battle to remember. Today, Lod Airport is Ben Gurion Airport – the central international airport of Israel.
This tank has fallen into the hands of the IDF during the battles near the Sea of Galilee in the War of Independence, and was brought to use by the personnel of the ‘Golani’ Brigade. It was then used in the battles to conquer Megiddo and Lajuhn police station from the Iraqi Military.
Vickers light tank Mk.VIB.
Many British combat vehicles that saw service in Africa during the mid-war period were transferred to the Egyptian armed forces with the formation of the Egyptian state. Those were used against Israel during the War of Independence, and some were captured. Those captured, were not used by the Israeli forces, at least not in operational service.
British Archer Tank Destroyer (Based on the Valentine).
A certain amount of those tank destroyers were captured from the Egyptian army during the war in 1956. Michael Mass showed us a picture from his personal photo collection, depicting a unit of 6 captured Israeli Archers on the Independence parade of 1956. Here is a picture taken after the battle – this Archer was abandoned by its Egyptian crew:
What was interesting about this tank destroyer is the fact the gun was facing backwards. Apparently, this feature was favored by the Israeli crews, because allowed quick repositioning if required.
British M10 Achilles TD
Basically a Wolverine, which had it gun replaced with a QF 17-pounder. Those were also purchased from the wartime leftover yards, and were supposed to serve in TD platoons included in armored battalions. The idea for including such a platoon was dropped few years later.
Shermans in Israeli service
As mentioned earlier, a huge endeavor was undertaken in the end of the 1950′ to acquire as much tanks as possible, and the main source was US and British leftovers from WW2 in Europe. Sherman tanks were to spare, mostly the M4A3 model, and those were bought in vast numbers, with the aim of converting the young IDF to an army with a tank force that can stand against all its surrounding enemies (Jordan, Egypt, Syria), and even some beyond (Iraq).
But before Israel used conventional ways to receive Sherman tanks, some were acquired in, what is called in Hebrew – ‘ways-not-ways’ (an effort that does not justify the aim or a rather strange one).
The first Sherman tank, an M4A1, was also stolen from the forces of the departing British mandate: When the British forces in Palestine were packing their belongings to leave for good, all large equipment was inspected, and pieces in bad condition were to be destroyed and left there. This was the fate of 3 M4A1 tanks, which were deemed unrepairable, and departed the warehouse in Haifa on trailers to the cliffs of the Carmel Mountain, to be thrown off. One of the drivers of those trailers was Jewish, and kindly took a ‘detour’ via Tel Aviv, and left the tank for good there. Now, if we take a look at the amount of British equipment the young IDF bought and stole from the British forces, which was marked as ‘unusable’, and take into account the statement of the source: “The tank was brought to Tel-Aviv, fuelled and started running as new” – we might assume the British just wanted to use as less ships as possible to get out from Palestine for good.
30 More tanks were bought in Italy, for 2200 US dollars for a piece. Here again, the source on Wikipedia states that Krupp guns (particular model not mentioned, but the most common one in Israeli use back then was the M03 L/30) were used on the tanks that had holes drilled in their guns. Anyway, the source also states that those guns were quickly replaced by original M3 guns purchased from France, which allowed proper aiming. None of the alleged Krupp Shermans have survived to tell us if the story is true.
With the years passing, Israel have bought more and more Sherman tanks, and started converting them into various armored machines. The variety of those vehicles is on display in Latrun. Just give an Israeli engineer a tank, and look what he can do:
Standard M4A3 Sherman
M4A3 Sherman with 105mm howitzer for fire support.
Israeli converted M50 Sherman (right) and M51 Sherman (left)
The M50 was a regular M4A3 with its gun replaced with the French CN-75-50 gun (The original gun of the AMX-13).
This was done in the early 1950′, to improve the firepower, so it will be able to cope well against Egyptian T-34s. The conversion was kept in secret, until used in battle during operation ‘Kadesh’ in 1956.
The M51 was probably the most advanced version of the Sherman ever built. It had the French 105mm D1504 L/44 gun, and the original engine was replaced with the Cummins VT8-460-B1 V8 460 HP diesel engine. The upgrade was done to cope with modern Soviet tanks in the service of the Egyptian military, such as the T-54/55. Both M50 and M51 stayed in service up until the 1970′s and then were sold to Chile.
M4A3 Sherman with a dozer blade. Although such an installation was also popular in the US and UK, this one is all Israeli-made.
M50 Sherman SPG, with a 155mm howitzer. The engine is in the front (note the radiator ‘ribs’).
Rocket launchers installed on Sherman hulls. The one on the left used 290 mm rockets and the one on the right – 240mm.
‘Eyal’ (Deer) observation tank, based on the Sherman hull. This is basically a mechanism that can lift a man to a height of 27m on its erecting platform. Manned by two (Driver and Commander/Observer).
Soltam (Israeli military industry company) L-33 155mm self-propelled howitzer, based on a Sherman hull (on the left). 160mm heavy self-propelled mortar, based on a Sherman hull (on the right).
M4A3 Sherman with an Israeli made mine-cleaning flail.
Armored ambulance – based on the Sherman hulls.
Those vehicles were later developed to the ‘Tankbulance’ concept, which is a part of the Merkava line today – a fully armed tank, with a compartment for recovering up to 4 wounded seated, or one on a stretcher, with a medical team and equipment inside. The last picture was taken from Wiki media, because Brenthos forgot to take a shot of it.
Later Israeli vehicles
Alongside the developments of the M50 and M51, Israel purchased AMX-13 tanks from France, which served in the IDF from 1956 until 1969, and then were sold to Singapore. The tanks at first saw action in the battle of the Mitle pass in October 31, 1956, where they assisted the paratrooper forces. As in other countries, the armored corps was not satisfied with the auto loading system, which had constant malfunctions, but the speed and small size of such a tank allowed it to get to places other Israeli vehicles could not. The AMX-13s, armed with 75mm guns, were used as TDs, formed 3 battalions, and took part in the Six-Day War.
In 1959 Israel started receiving British Centurion tanks that got the Hebrew name ‘Shot’ (Whip), and in the beginning of the 1960′s – American M48 Pattons, that were called ‘Magach’ (Ram). Those were to become the main frontline tanks of the Israeli armored corps. Various models of both tanks were used, including Mk III, Mk V and Mk VII Centurions and M48A3, M48A5, M60, M60A1, M60A3 Pattons. The Israeli armored corps also took steps to unify the components of all its tanks. This included the installation of the Royal Ordnance L7 gun, installing similar engines of 750 HP, and later 900 HP on both the Shot and Magach tanks.
Other modifications were made, which we will not discuss, but only note some of them:
- Unified radio equipment.
- Replacing the electrical circuits and lightning equipment with locally-produced one.
- Removing the commander’s cupola on the Pattons and replacing it with a shorter one, produced in Israel, lacking the machinegun.
- Installing modular spaced and reactive armor – mostly on the Magach tanks.
Let us have a look at those tanks and the modifications made to them:
The original Centurion Mk V, armed with the 20-pounder.
Modified Centurion Mk VII (Shot Kal), armed with the L7.
To be continued…