The FT-B, the little Ford that could!
In 1920 Poland was at war with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had pushed through the Ukraine and were at the doorstep of Warsaw. The Country of Poland had the fourth largest armored division in the world at that time. However the 120 Renault FT-17 tanks were slow, tracked vehicles, ill-suited for the type of fast maneuvers the Polish needed to counter the Soviets. The Poles needed armored cars, and a lot of them. Poland did have a small number of armored cars captured from other countries during war. But, these were slow and heavy, and already fighting with front line units. So, civil engineer Tadeusz Tański turned to the reliable and inexpensive Ford Model T as a starting point for a new armored car.
The Ford FT-B
The Polish people had used ingenuity to improvise armored vehicles in the recent past, most notably the 1918 “Tank Piłsudskiego” armored truck. (You can find my simple model of this vehicle for free download over at Landships II). But that had been a single vehicle. The army needed many vehicles, and fast. The Model T Ford started production in 1908 and proved a capable vehicle on the battle fronts of WW1. It was adaptable to many uses, including as an ambulance, and armed scout car.
Tadeusz Tański designed a lightly armored body with a rotating turret that fit to the reliable Ford. Using armored trench plates left behind by the Germans at the close of WW1, Tadeusz Tański produced 16 cars able to withstand rifle and machinegun fire. They were also maneuverable and relatively fast. The car did have weak points, such as the wooden unarmored floor boards and the wooden spokes on the wheels. However, in part because of the cars speed, the Russians could never fully exploit these weaknesses.
Each car was crewed by two men, armed with a single German 7.92 mm Maxim 05/15 machine gun, with 1250 rounds, as well as 25 hand grenades’. Due to the simple nature of the Ford engine, the vehicles rarely broke down. When they did, teams made repairs in the field, sometimes under fire. If the vehicles required more extensive repairs, the entire armored portion of the car could be lifted off the frame in one piece. This feature facilitated quick access to the whole vehicle. Due to the light weight design, the car could cross boggy fields and weak or damaged bridges where heavy armored cars could not go. As importantly, the car could run on poor quality fuel and oil, a necessity under wartime supply conditions.
To the Front!
As quickly as Tański’s team produced each car they shipped it to the front. They were badly needed. Between 1919 and 1920 the Russians had recaptured nearly all forty of Poland’s heavy armored car fleet. The unwieldy Polish tanks, as expected, had a hard time countering the fast moving Russian cavalry units. On August 14, 1920, eight armored Fords joined three makeshift armored trucks and a few support cars and entered the battle as the “1st Light Armored Car Column”. The unit fought with great success in the decisive action known as the Warsaw Battle from August 14-16, 1920, causing great confusion among the Russian rifle units and cavalry. This action turned back the Soviet forces and would later be known as “The Miracle on the Vistula”, named after the river crossing near the battle. The little Ford helped Poland secure it’s first major battlefield victory in nearly two centuries.
A True Miracle
As the 1st Light Armored Car Column was earning their reputation as a hard hitting unit, other units were having trouble. During the Russian attack of the 14th, Polish forces outside of Warsaw were in danger of being overrun. It was here that a 27 year old Catholic Priest rallied the Polish soldiers forward in a counter attack. The young priest lost his life, but the Poles continued to push forward. At this point the Soviets panicked and fled the field in a full rout.
The following night, the Polish Army launched a night counter attack. Many Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary interceded over the battlefield. While advancing polish troops only saw a Devine light in the night sky, some Russian troops saw the figure of a woman floating above the heads of the attacking Polish troops,. a streak of light making her visible in the darkness. When shells fired at the attacking Polish troops accidently struck a Russian reserve unit, the Russian line broke in panic. Regardless of what spooked the Russians that night, they fled the fields, only to find that the 1st Light Armored Column waiting for them in the Russian rear. The Polish people had saved Warsaw.
In September, The 1st Light Armored Car Column joined up with nearly 1,000 men and 54 trucks, with eight pieces of field artillery. The impromptu unit took the name Task Force One. The Task Force launched a surprise raid on the Russian held town of Kovel in the Ukraine on September 12. The Ford cars routed the surprised Russians, forcing a retreat of two Russian armored Rail Cars. The retreat helped the Polish Army capture Kovel and the rail station, along with hundreds of tons of war supplies. This proved to be a turning point in the war.
In the End
Of the 16 cars built, 12 would survive the war. In the mid 20s, the military began withdrawing the cars from service, after they played such a pivotal role in the defense of Poland. By 1930, only three were still in usable condition. The following year, all of the Fords had been withdrawn from service. No original car is known to have survived to today, although there are a number of reproductions. When examining a model of the armored car or looking at pictures, it is amazing just how small the vehicle was. It is more amazing to think that two men would sit inside, with 1200 rounds of ammunition and 25 hand grenades’, on top of ten gallons of fuel, and race into battle. Yet against so many odds, Mr. Tadeusz Tański designed a little car that inflicted great damage on the enemy, and brought the men inside home.