Finland (1919 – 42)
Light Tank – 34 purchased

Finland’s first tanks

Finland was part of Imperial Russia until the 1917 Communist Revolution. It gained independence at the end of the First World War. This new country realized that it needed to obtain armored fighting vehicles to protect its borders. France had a lot of Renault FT light tanks that it no longer needed after the end of the Great War. The Finns negotiated to buy 32 tanks from the French.

Finnish Army Renault FT tank, war games of summer 1939
Finnish Army Renault FT 17 tank on exercises during the summer of 1939 (photographer unknown)

Only fourteen of these tanks were armed with the 37 mm (1.46 in) SA-18 (L/21) tank gun that could fire armor piercing rounds. The other eighteen tanks were fitted only with a 8 mm (0.31 in) Hotchkiss M/1914 machine gun. It was envisaged that the machine gun tanks would work with the gun tanks to give each other mutual support when dealing with enemy attacks. A few had the original angular riveted turret, but most had the newer circular Berliet turret.

The first 32 Renault FT tanks were shipped from Le Havre to Helsinki and issued to the Finnish Army on the 26th of August 1919. The tanks cost 67 million Finnish Marks. All 32 tanks were factory-new, manufactured in 1918 – 1919 and had French Renault register numbers in between 66151 – 73400.

In 1920, Finland was given two more Renault FT tanks by the French Government, to bring the Finnish Army tank strength up to 34 vehicles. One was a gun tank and the other was a machine gun only.

The Renault FT equipped Hyökkäysvaunurykmentti (Tank Regiment), was garrisoned in the Santahamina military base in Helsinki. Later it moved to the military fort and barracks in Hameenlinna 100 km north from the capital.

The Finnish Army gave the tank gun version of their Renault FT tanks the designation ‘Koiras’ (male) and the machine gun armed tanks ‘Naaras’ (female)

Tank Transports

Six French Latil tractors with flat back trailers were purchased from France as part of the same order. They arrived with the tanks and were intended to be used for tank transportation. This was not a good decision. The Finns found out that the Latil tractor unit was unable to tow the heavy trailer and FT tanks cross country. On flat road surfaces it could only manage a maximum speed of around 8 km/h which was about equal to that of tank itself.

The Koiras male tank gun

Some of the Finnish Army Renault FTs were armed with the low velocity 37 mm Puteaux SA-18 L/21 tank gun. It was called the 37 Psv.K/18 by the Finnish Army.

At a distance of 100 m (110 yd), its armor piercing round could only penetrate 12 mm (0.47 in) of armor plate set at 90 degrees, but that result was not consistent. Sometimes the round would bounce off or fail to penetrate.

The tank commander had to act as the loader and gunner at the same time, while also trying to find enemy targets. This meant that the tank only had a maximum rate of fire of 10 shots per minute. The gun had a muzzle velocity of 360 – 440 m/sec depending on what ammunition was being fired. It had a maximum range of 2.5 km when firing high explosive shells, but its low velocity meant that the gun was ineffective against structurally strong targets, like concrete reinforced bunkers.

It could fire six different shells: HE, HE-T, APHE, APHE-T, AP-T and grape-shot for short-range defence againt infantry. The gun could be called a semiautomatic tank gun: after firing a shot it automatically removed the cartridge case and the breech remained opened for loading of the next shell.

The turret fitted to the gun tanks in the Finnish Tank Battalion was known as the Girod turret. It had a small 1x optical sight next to the main gun. The optical sight was a straight-through telescopic sight, that moved with the gun when elevation was changed.

Finnish Army Renault FT-17 armed with 37 mm Puteaux-gun Hämeenlinna Finland 1920s-1930s
Finnish Army Renault FT armed with the 37 mm Puteaux-gun with the skid fitted to the rear of the tank. Notice there is no tool box fitted above the lower track, but the tank commander’s signalling flags are affixed to the turret cupola. Hämeenlinna, Finland, 1920s-1930s. (photographer unknown)

Finnish Army modifications

The Finnish Army Renault FT tanks were not drastically modified during their 21 year service career. The Koiras version, with its 37 mm gun, remained pretty much the same as delivered in 1919.

The Naaras version did have its machine gun upgraded from the original 8 mm (0.31 in) Hotchkiss model 1914 to the Finnish designed variation of the air-cooled Maxim M/09-31 machine gun.

There were two main reasons for the change of machine gun. The first was that the Finnish Army had to specially order 8 mm ammunition, as it normally used 7.62 mm (0.3 in) bullets. This caused supply problems. The other more serious issue was that the French guns started to wear out and become unreliable. They needed to be replaced, so the decision was made to take this opportunity to fit a machine gun that used the standard sized bullet used by the Finnish Army.

The last machine gun Naaras tank received its replacement Maxim M/09-31 machine gun at Asevarikko 1 (Weapons Depot 1) in October of 1937. The new machine gun had a rate of fire of about 900 rounds per minute. The ammunition was fed from the right in 250-round disintegrating ammunition belts made from steel.

In 1934 it was decided to fit each tank with a large toolbox on each side of the vehicle above the bogie road wheels, between the tracks.

The Russian Civil War

The Russian Civil War (1918-21) was fought to decide who would establish control over Russia after the October 1917 communist revolution. It was to tear Russia apart for three years.

The French had a hidden political agenda and encouraged the sale of the Renault FT tanks to Finland. They wanted the newly independent Finland to join the battle against the Russian Bolshevik government.

What the French did not take into consideration was that the Finns had no stomach for supporting the Tsarist White Russians, whose leadership refused to accept Finland’s independence from Imperial Russia.

The Finnish Government refused to join the war. The French used diplomatic pressure, demanding Finland to loan two of their new Renault FT tanks (one male and one female) to White Russian General Nikolai Yudenich’s North-western Army in Estonia.

The two tanks were shipped to Tallinn on the 17th of October 1919. They were transported to Narva on the 20th. They were manned by French and Russian crews. Between 27th – 31st October 1919, these Finnish tanks took part in the attack towards Kipi, as part of the North-Western Army’s attack towards Petrograd (St Petersburg).

It failed and the White Russian Army retreated to Estonia, where they were disarmed before being evacuated. Estonia used the two Finnish Renault FT tanks to train its tank crews before returning them to Finland on the 9th of April 1920.

Both of them arrived back in Helsinki in very poor condition. They were repaired. As compensation, the French Government sent Finland two additional Renault FT tanks, which arrived on the steam ship Ceres on the 21st of April 1920.

French register numbers for these additional tanks were 66614 and 67220. The arrival of these two new additional tanks increased the total number of Renault FT tanks in Finnish use to 34 tanks.

Organisation

As part of the export deal, a French unit of nine tank training school men, led by Captain Pivetau, arrived in Helsinki in 1919. and trained the basics for Finnish personnel. Seven out of the first twelve officers of the new Finnish Army Tank Battalion were transferred from the cavalry. Recruits for this new military unit were selected with preference to those that had any motorized technical training or experience.

The structure of the Finnish Tank Regiment followed the French Army model, which considered tanks as field artillery. The tanks were accordingly organised into Artillery Battalions, Batteries and Companies.

The Finnish Army Hyökkäysvaunurykmentti Tank Regiment had two Battalions with three Batteries of five Renault FT tanks. Each Battalion had 15 tanks which meant that the Regiment had a total of 30 tanks.

Organisation of Hyökkäysvaunurykmentti (Tank Regiment) 1919:
Regimental Headquarters
1st Battalion (1.Panssaripataljoona)
Battalion Headquarters
1st Battery,
Command Tank
1st Company ( 1x male tank, 1x female tank)
2nd Company (Panssarikomppania 1x male tank, 1x female tank)
2nd Battery,
Command Tank
1st Company (1x male tank, 1x female tank)
2nd Company (1x male tank, 1x female tank)
3rd Battery,
Command Tank
1st Company (1x male tank, 1x female tank)
2nd Company (1x male tank, 1x female tank)
Repair Workshop

2nd Battalion (2.Panssaripataljoona)
Supplies formations

Finland’s Wars

Finland is one of the lesser known participants in the Second World War. The country was under attack by the Soviet Union between 30th November 1939 and 13th March 1940, in what would be known as the Winter War. The Finns were tentatively supported by Sweden, Britain and France and, to a lesser extent, the USA. After a one year break, the Russo-Finish War recommenced. This period is also called the Continuation War, and Finland fought alongside Germany as a co-belligerent  between June 25, 1941 – 15th September 1944. During the final phases of the war, Finland signed a separate peace with the USSR, and the Finns fought against the Germans, who were retreating from the country. These operations, also called the Lapland War, took place between 15th September 1944 – 25 April 1945.

The Renault FT could cope with the winter snows of Finland.
The Renault FT tank could cope with the winter snows of Finland. In the background of this blurred photograph the Finnish Army ski troops can be made out. (photographer unknown)

The Winter War

In November 1939, the Soviet Army invaded Finland, in what was to become known as the Winter War. The outdated WW1 Renault FT tanks were the main core of the Finnish Army.

Out of the four armoured tank companies of the Finnish Tank Battalion that were available to be deployed to face this new threat, two of them were equipped with obsolete Renault FT tanks.

They were ineffective against Soviet T-26, T-28, BT-5 and BT-7  tanks. The 35 horse power tank engine could provide the slow infantry walking speed required by the original WW1 specifications, but its top speed of just over 7 km/h could not keep up with the new breed of fast Soviet tanks.

When the tank was designed in 1917, the 95-litre gasoline fuel tank was considered large, but it’s maximum operational range was limited to a mere 35 kilometers. This limited the tank’s tactical capabilities for long attacks through enemy lines. It had to be able to find fuel and, in the battlefields of remote Finland, refueling was difficult.

Only signal equipment used in typical FT tanks were signal flags, which the tank commander would wave when necessary.

In 1936, in a money saving exercise, the Finnish Government ordered 32 new Vickers 6-ton tanks without guns, optics and radios, and some without the driver’s seat. They were going to fit them with 37 mm main guns and machine guns purchased separately, in Finland. They were considered the most modern and most suitable for the Finnish heavily forested environment.

The Vickers light tanks arrived before the Winter War started, but they had not been converted. Most remained unarmed when the Soviets attacked and the Winter War begun, on the 30th of November 1939. Only one tank battalion was ready for action in late February, when the Winter War was already nearing its end.

Outdated and outclassed, the Renault FT tanks were the only fighting vehicles in an operational condition at that time. On the 23rd of October 1939, when the mobilization started, the 1st and 2nd Tank Companies reported that they had only 20 Renault FT 17 tanks in operational condition: 11 of them Koiras male gun tanks and 9 Naaras female machine gun tanks. They were 10 tanks short of their authorized strength of 30 tanks.

The Finnish Army High Command realised that sending them into battle would be suicidal. It was never ordered. Instead, the two tank companies were at first used to assist in infantry anti-tank training.

The most important contribution made by the Renault FT tanks to the Finnish war effort in the Winter War was that they towed at least 27 captured Soviet armored vehicles off the battlefield and helped transport them to the Finnish Army Panssarikeskuskorjaamo (Armour Center Repair Shop). The Soviet tanks were then repaired and some were modified for use by the Finnish Army against their former owners.

The tank’s turret was the most heavily armored part of the vehicle and the curved armor helped deflect incoming shells. On 6th February 1940, a decision was made and orders sent, to bury the hull of some of the tanks, leaving only the turret visible. They were to be used as defensive pill boxes and observation posts. There are no reports that they saw action other than as forward artillery observation posts.

Eight Renault FT tanks of the 1st Tank Company were reported captured at the Kämärä railway station, whilst waiting to be transported to the frontlines and used as bunkers. A Finnish Army report at the time suggested that these tanks were not drivable due to mechanical faults and had been disarmed. The Red Army also reported finding a Finnish FT tank at the Pero railway station.

On 14th February 1940, the remaining tanks belonging to 1st Tank Company were dug into the ground and became a bunker strong point along the Finnish trenches near Lake Näykkijärvi (now in Russia). This area was involved in fighting on the 26th February 1940, in what is known as the Battle of Honkaniemi, but there are no reports if the dug in Renault FT tanks fired their weapons.

2nd Tank Company FT tanks were transported to the Taipale sector, with orders to dig in 10 tanks and make them part of the new but incomplete Volossula – Kaarnajoki – Linnakangas defensive line (now in Russia).

A few of the tanks were transferred to the Takala rear defensive position on the Taipale peninsula, where they were dug into the ground leaving only their turret showing.

Not all the Renault FT tanks were used as bunkers. In March of 1940, the 7. Erillinen Panssarivaunujoukkue (7th Detached Tank Platoon) was equipped with four FT tanks for tank crew courses at the Niinisalo training center. Three of these tanks were scrapped in 1943 and the remaining one was preserved as a museum exhibit and can now be seen at the Armour Museum, Panssarimuseo in Parola, Finland.

Finnish Koiras in the original French med-grey livery.
Finnish Renault FT, “Koiras” (37 mm gun version) in the original French med-grey livery.
Finnish Renault FT Naaras
Finnish Renault FT Naaras (machine gun version)
Finnish Renault FT, in the light brown livery
Finnish Renault FT, in the light brown livery

Gallery

Finnish Army tank crew showing their Renault FT Tank to the infantry
Finnish Army tank crew showing their Renault FT Tank to the infantry (photographer unknown)

Abandoned Finnish Army Renault FT
Abandoned Finnish Army Renault FT light tank with both the driver’s and commander’s hatches open. The gun is pointing to the rear of the tank. (photographer unknown)

Two Renault FT tanks of the Finnish Army taking part in war games in the 1920-30's
Two Renault FT 17 tanks of the Finnish Army taking part in war games in the 1920-30’s. The Renault FT Koiras (Male gun-tank) is passing the rear of a partially smoke-covered Renault FT Naaras (female machine gun tank) version. Notice the tank commander’s signalling flags on top of the tank turret’s cupola. (photographer unknown)

When the Soviet troops overran the Finnish defensive lines they just left the dug in bunker Renault FT tanks in place as they were too obsolete to be of interest.
When the Soviet troops overran the Finnish defensive lines they just left the dug in bunker Renault FT tanks in place as they were too obsolete to be of interest. (photographer unknown)

Dug-in bunker Winter War Renault FT tank
Dug-in Finnish Army FT tank used as a bunker during the Winter War. (photographer unknown)

Surviving tank

Finnish Army Renault FT Tank at the Armour Museum, Panssarimuseo in Parola, Finland
Finnish Army Renault FT Tank at the Armour Museum, Panssarimuseo in Parola, Finland – Credits: Axel Recke

It was very cramped inside the Finnish Army Renault FT tank turret. The 37mm rounds were stored on the right on a rack.
It was very cramped inside the Finnish Army Renault FT tank turret. The 37 mm rounds were stored on the right on a rack – Credits: Wikiwand

The Renault FT's engine was at the rear of the vehicle. The skid that is normally fixed to the back of the tank has been removed and placed on the ground next to the tank.
The Renault FT’s engine was at the rear of the vehicle. The skid that is normally fixed to the back of the tank has been removed and placed on the ground next to the tank – Credits: Balcer-commonswiki

Finnish Army Renault FT Tank
Finnish Army Renault FT Tank with skid fitted at the rear – Credits: Popcorn 2000

Sources

Finland at War 1939 – 1945 by Philip Jowett and Brent Snodgrass
Guns vs. Armour by D.M. Honner
Jaeger Platoon Finnish Army 1918 – 45
Finnish Army Renault FT on Tank-Hunter.com
Parola Tank Museum
Char Renault FT Wikiwand
Tank-Hunter.com

Specifications

Dimensions (L x W x H) 4.95 (4.2 without tail) x 1.74 x 2.14 m
(16’3″/13’9″ x 5’9″ x 7’2″)
Total weight, battle ready 6.7 tons
Crew 2 (commander/gunner, driver)
Propulsion Renault 4 cyl petrol, 39 hp (24 kW)
Speed 7 km/h (4.3 mph)
Range/consumption 65 km (40.38 mi)
Armament female tank 8 mm (0.31 in) Hotchkiss M1914 Machine Gun
Armament female tank 1937+ 7.62 mm (0.3 in) Maxim M/09-31 machine gun
Armament male tank 37 mm (1.46 in) Puteaux SA-18 L/21 tank gun
Armor 6 – 22 mm
Total used 34
BT-42
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2 Responses to Renault FT – Finland

  1. lolwatbro says:

    Is it really the SA-18? the gun length looks longer than the original.

    • Amazing Ace says:

      I’m not entirely sure, but the theory is that the Koiras variant FTs Finland lent to Estonia in 1919 that were later returned badly damaged were repaired and modified with longer barrels around 1919-1920, or possibly in 1937 at the same time the Naaras FT’s armament was being upgraded.

      – TE Moderator

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