A Real Chinese TD – Interview with Will Kerrs

Today, Will Kerrs from Tanks-Encyclopedia, presented us with an exclusive look at a truly odd tank destroyer of Chinese origin (the one above). This is one of the first times it has been shown to the public. He has also given us a chance to interview him about the vehicle.

Question 1: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Will Kerrs: I am Will Kerrs from Tanks Encyclopedia. I’ve been working with them for two years, and I focus mainly on the early 20th century – Spain 1920-1939, China 1916-1955, and the USSR 1925-1945. I do also dabble elsewhere, such as Saddam’s Iraq, and modern day Syria. In terms of China, i’ve been studying their early AFVs for around six months now. I’ve been able to compile a list of all the AFVs I know they used, and i’m working on a comprehensive history of Chinese AFVs (and in their correct historical contexts, I might add – something a lot of historians neglect to do). I’m largely building on the work of China experts such as Benny Tsang (who used to be very active on forums, and Dr. Martin Andrew (who I used to talk to, but unfortunately lost contact with). So I can safely say that I have a solid basis for my work.

Question 2: What is this strange tank destroyer?

Will Kerrs: That’s a good question. Essentially, it looks as though we have an SU-76 (which was supplied to the PLA between 1951 and 1954) that has been modified with a new superstructure which resembles a Type 59 or Type 62. It’s definitely not just a straight conversion of a turret onto an SU-76 hull – those turrets are too big for the chassis, and the superstructure itself appears simplified – see the cupola, just in shot. The gun is obviously a 76mm ZiS-3 – there’s not much to dispute there. Those are all the things we can really say with any degree of certainty. I also think that the superstructure is entirely static, but it’s very hard to be sure. The fenders appear non-standard – almost certainly Chinese made. The front idler wheel on the left side also appears to be missing, but I don’t know why.

Question 3: Do you have any theories as to why it was built/converted?

Will Kerrs: There are really two theories. The first one comes from Dr. Martin Andrew, a Chinese PLA expert I used to talk to. He said: “The Chinese never made any SU-76s*, but certainly received a lot from the Soviet Union. China had, and still does, has [sic] a habit of looking at different turret/hull combinations. My suggestion is that it is a developmental project for the Tyue [sic] 62 project, to see whether a scaled down Type 59 turret can fit an 85mm tank gun… …They [SU-76s] were never produced in China, perhaops [sic] overhauled and rebuiltm [sic] but teh [sic] T-7- [sic] hull was only produced in the USSR.” *We know this not to be true – see the “SU-76 Local Production”, itself likely a one-off. So I think he is suggesting that this is some kind of testbed to see if the PLA can scale down the Type 59 turret. That doesn’t really stack up when you consider that the Type 62 used an 85mm gun, not a 76mm gun. He might be onto something, but there’s another theory.

It’s also possible that the PLA were seeing if they could modernise their SU-76s. They were obsolete, certainly in the PLA, by the mid-50s. They were never likely to see any front line combat action like Red Army SU-76s did during WWII. So, what can the PLA do with their SU-76s? Well, if you look at the gun, you can see that its new mount seems to give it a much higher firing arc. This probably means that it might be better as a Self-Propelled Gun for indirect fire, as opposed to direct fire. So perhaps this was a prototype for a modernisation into SPGs? It’s hard to say.

I really can’t see this conversion dating anywhere outside of 1953-1963. The uniforms of the soldiers are fairly generic for that period.

Question 4: This might seem as an off-topic question at first, but what are your opinions on the Chinese tank destroyers that are coming to World of Tanks?

Will Kerrs: I’ve had a look at these, and i’m in two minds about them. Anyone who has read my fake tanks articles on Tanks Encyclopedia knows that I really hate fictional tanks that Wargaming and Kongzhong come up with. I also assume “FT” stands for “Fake Tank”. However, I will say this – Wargaming does do a good job of making these concepts look the part. Some of these are an obvious carbon copy of Soviet designs (i’m looking at most of them here). Some don’t look too out of place – the M3A3 mounting the ZiS-2 looks fine, but just doesn’t seem to have actually existed. The KMT do seem to have been supplied turretless M3A3s, and the PLA may have captured them. Whether or not they’d mount a gun onto them is unclear. The now famous LVT(A)-4s with ZiS-2 and ZiS-3 guns had them mounted onto their original turrets. Maybe that’s something to consider? Generally I don’t like them, but they’re nice what-ifs. I just don’t like that they write a fake history for them (or any fake tanks, for that matter)

Question 5: Do you think the Chinese tank destroyer you found might find a nice home as a replacement for one of these dubious tank destroyers?

Will Kerrs: Well. No. It’s more akin to a self propelled gun. You could argue that the new superstructure is an attempt to improve the vehicle’s armour, so maybe it is intended as a tank destroyer? I will say that the hull is unchanged, so that’s a slightly dubious suggestion. We’ll probably never know if it was a testbed, tank destroyer, or SPG.

I have no idea why they haven’t used the LVT(A)-4s with the ZiS-2s and -3s, the SU-76, SU-100, ISU-122, and ISU-152. I suppose it’s to have some diversity, but I think they are preferable, at least to me as a historian, to outright fakes. The Chinese tree overall is a mess, and there is a means to make it historically accurate, if a little repetitive of other trees.

Question 6: Last question. What do you think are the chances of ever finding a vehicle such as this again?

Will Kerrs: That’s a difficult question. On the one hand, it seems as though the PLA was doing quite a lot of experiments. Who knows – maybe some of the tanks in the PLA tree I regard as fake are actually real? It’s hard to say. So in that respect, I think it’s likely that there were other experimental tanks, conversions, local production models, etc. There is, of course, a photo or two of what appears to be an SU-76 converted into a SPAAG with a low calibre AA gun fitted into a fairly large, but crude superstructure (there were apparently two conversions in Vietnam service, which might have been made with Chinese technical assistance). So there’s almost certainly more weird conversions out there. Will we ever see them? We all know the score with Chinese archives – they’re rather hush hush. Just think of how many Soviet projects have come to light since the Russians opened up their archives to historians. Maybe we will see some more come to light through Chinese language books, private photos, new exhibitions in museums, etc, but we’ll need an eye in China for that. The LVT(A)-4 only seems to have come to light because of BeijingMan.blogspot posting photos from a museum in Beijing, lest we forget.