Bizarre armor projects of the ’40s. Stanislaw Lem and his tanks

Time for another historical article translated by Vlad. He also pulled a nice 1st April joke on me, hehe 🙂

In this article we talk about Stanislaw Lem’s tank proposals. There are several, and this article is a treat I dedicate to our Polish readers. Spread the word!

The books of this man are read by millions. His works of art are included in the world’s most renowned science fiction literature, and his philosophical theses laid the foundation for the science of predicting the future – futurology. He predicted the emergence of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and exploration of space by mankind. All of these are also achievements by Stanislaw Lem.

But only recently, the first works of the author were found in military archives. And these weren’t novels or stories, but tank projects.

Tank of “grand” dimensions

When WWII started, Stanislaw Lem was studying to become a doctor in Lvov. He couldn’t leave the occupied city and lived there on forged documents. Stanislaw worked as a welder working on damaged German armor. He saw tanks in Hitler’s echelons traveling through Lvov. One could say that the future writer and futurologist studied tank building by practical means.

Stanislaw remembered that at this time, waiting for the liberation from the Germans, he “focused all strength in one direction – to create new and improve old means of fighting based on the incomplete data available to me”. The Red Army liberated Lvov on 27th June 1944. Some two months afterwards, he sent a voluminous letter in Polish to the people’s commisariat of defense of the USSR, explaining his ideas regarding technological advancements in the defense industry.

The first topic in Lem’s proposal was the project of a “Large-sized tank” (Czołg wielkich rozmiarów). The ten meter long hull firstly surprised with its chassis. The author considered that thanks to four independent track components, his tank could comfortably cross rough terrain. The arrangement of the chassis should help the vehicle to cross anti-tank ditches, ramparts, ruins etc.

Lem also called his invention the “land-based ironclad” or “battleship”, and not just on a whim: “Aside from the frontal turret, there is also a smaller rear turret with a paired small-caliber anti-aircraft gun. On the four corners, there are additional small machinegun emplacements, the arcs of fire crossing each other in a great radius”. Thus, the vehicle was reliably protected from attacks from the air and from enemy infantry. The caliber of the main gun was not specified by Lem, but it could be the powerful 155mm cannon WZ.40.

The tank’s mass was to be 220 tons. The inventor didn’t write about the armor thickness on his vehicle. Instead, he described the overall concept of its’ protection. The armor was to be adapted for maximum serial production, “which, although increasing the mass due to inferior quality compared to rolled armor, also allows for the production of quarters or eights of the overall volume, and provides absence of difficult assembly”. The armor parts were to be rounded (as Lem literally said – “spherical”) with cylindrical outer contours at the front, sides and rear.

The inventor wanted to achieve maximum protection for his “tank king”. And it would not only be provided by the armor itself, but also by the “entourage”, that is, vehicles of smaller dimensions.

“A” and “B” in armored combat

Following the land battleship, two tankette proposals were included in Stanislaw Lem’s letter. The first was called “tankette A” and represented a vehicle with the length of 2 meters, width of 1,3 meters and slightly smaller height. Its arrangement was incredibly simple. The armor consisted of one belt of rolled steel, bent and pressed the right way. The frontal part of the hull had an angled form to provide maximum resistance and armor strength.

Movement would be provided by a petrol engine. The crew consisted of one soldier who, being in a reclining position, would handle the either one heavy or two light machineguns placed in a rotating turret. Observation would be conducted through one frontal and two side viewports.

“The tankette presented above, or rather a mechanized machinegun nest, has the following task: to cover the heavy tank from frontal attacks and protection from heavy arms fire (mines, anti-tank missiles etc.)” – Lem wrote. However, he also considered another function for the vehicles of type “A”: placement of smokescreens. Placing smoke launchers in the tankettes, it was possible to provide reliable cover on certain sectors of the front.

Finally, thanks to a handle and grip at the back, the tankette “A” could carry one infantryman. Several hundred of these vehicles could transfer infantry in the amount of up to one battalion.

The tankettes of type “B” were also for one person only and carried a machinegun. But in their case, the author focused on limiting the height of the vehicle to complicate aiming for the enemy. The tankette “B” had a spindle-like form and a very low silhouette – the height didn’t exceed 70cm.

The arrangement of the tracks allowed the vehicle not to cling with the hull to uneven ground. Thus, its’ maneuverability increased. “The driver and gunner, as the same person, is lying, or rather hanging on belts in a steel “coffin”, watching the battlefield through periscopes” – Lem wrote.

Inside, in front of the soldier’s eyes, were the devices. The vehicle was to be controlled by pedals placed at the feet, and also levers for the transmission. The frontal part of the frame stood out, and the drive wheel was placed there. The tankette “B” could as such cross ditches and craters. The tankette was provided with the same engine as model “A”, but with horizontally placed cylinders and air conditioning by sucking in the air from below.

Stanislaw Lem also emphasized another difference: “Tankette B should be fireproof”. He meant the resistance to enemy arms fire. As such, even if the vehicle was damaged, the soldier could unmount the machinegun and continue fighting on foot.

Aside of these, Lem’s letter was abundant with other ideas. He proposed an self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon on the base of a car with a low, armored body. Afterwards – explained the idea of an anti-tank rocket complex. Finally, he admitted: “Except for what was mentioned earlier, I also have drafts of assault guns resembling exoskeletons of beetles…”, which were not contained in the letter.

The train of thought of the yet unknown Pole crashed against the sceptical military engineers. But was this all in vain? Considering how Stanislaw Lem’s work influenced scientists, one could certainly say that the famous author indirectly participated in the development and creation of dozens of inventions. Inventions that served the world, not the war.