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The US Army Half-track

The US Army Half-track

The US Army Half-track
with Evan Allen

With the release of Fighting First it seemed like a good opportunity to write up some Gamer & Hobbyist specific background information on these prolifically produced & used armoured fighting vehicles (or AFVs).

Check out Fighting First here...

In the Beginning
As with many things concerning the pre-World War Two US Army, French influence had a hand in the creation of the US Half-track family. A French inventor, by the name of Adolph Kegresse, developed a system whereby replacing the rear wheels on a car or truck with essentially a large continuous rubber band track around a swing arm suspension system could give a standard vehicle a much superior cross country performance. His system was first adopted in Tsarist Russia prior to World War One and proved successful, even over snowy terrain. The 1917 Communist revolution and civil war that followed saw Adolph Kegresse return to France where he worked with the Citroen automobile company to create more half tracked vehicles based on his continuous rubber band and suspension design.

In 1925 and in 1931 the US army purchased some of these Citroën - Kegresse half-tracks and after some promising tests proceeded to modify the suspension design and create several half-tracked cars and trucks. These vehicles were built in small numbers and were employed as troop carriers and prime movers for light field artillery in the main.
The next step towards our World War Two half-track came about when a wheeled M2A1 scout car (or M3 scout car) had its rear wheels removed and replaced with Kegresse style half-track units in 1938. The first US armoured half-track had been created and the T7 was successfully tested. It was underpowered and also needed the classic front roller added as well to aid in cross-country work.  What they did next was to put the wheels back on and send it back to where it came from, but, fortunately, the testing had showed plenty of potential and in 1939 a purpose built pilot armoured half-track was built, the T14.

Right: An example of a French Citroën - Kegresse half-tracks.
The US Army Half-track: Part One
America Prepares
With war starting to rage in Europe in 1939, and the US Army now looking at massive expansion plans, they decided to build a series of half-tracks based on the promising T14 design and the T14 itself was now standardised as the Half-track Car M2. The M2 then became the basis for all the other half-tracks that followed.

The M2 had cap screwed on face hardened armour plate protection and was ¼” (6.3mm) thick all round apart from the drivers front plate which was ½” (12.7mm) thick. They also had self-sealing fuel tanks installed.  With both tracks and wheels powered the cross-country performance was pretty good. Early versions were fitted with the roller at the front but later a winch was installed on some as well but both roller and winch were fitted concurrently to the end of production – some gamers use the installation of either type to determine command or special half-tracks. Two more variations were developed and standardised soon after, the Half-track Personnel carrier M3 and the 81mm Mortar Carrier M4.

It soon became apparent that the amount of these new vehicles needed for the rapidly expanding US Army would overwhelm the original designer and manufacturer, the White Motor Co. and eventually three companies were involved in building these first half-tracks – White Motor Co., Diamond T and the Autocar Co. with the first acceptances to the US Army  in May 1941.
The US Army Half-track: Part One The M2 & M2A1
The M2 half-track could accommodate ten troops and was armed with two .30 cal M1917 MGs and one .50 cal HBM2 MG, all mounted on a skate rail that circumscribed the entire fighting compartment. The skate-rail also meant that there was no rear access door fitted. Eventually the M1917 .30 cal water cooled MGs were replaced by M1919 .30 cal air-cooled MGs. There were two large internal stowage bins on either side behind the driving compartment and these had access hatches on top and on the outside wall as well. Intended as an Armored Combat and Recce vehicle and also as a Prime Mover for artillery weapons it didn’t have the internal seating capacity to carry a complete rifle squad so also ended up as mortar and MG squad carriers and as tows for the 37mm & 57mm anti-tank guns for the Armored Infantry. This also limited its utility somewhat and eventually ended up being substituted by M3 half-tracks on occasion.
Left: An example of the M2 Half-track.
The three companies involved produced the M2 half-track in large numbers. Together they made 11,415 M2 half-tracks from May 1941 until September 1943. The M2A1 was an improvement to the original M2 and replaced it on the production line from October 1943 until production ceased in March1944 with 1643 new M2A1, along with 1266 from updating existing M2. The main difference found on the M2A1 was the installation of the MG pulpit and the removal of the skate-rail; they still didn’t bother to fit a rear access door however.
The M3 & M3A1
The M3 half-track had a fighting compartment that was 10”/25cms longer and could carry thirteen troops but the internal stowage bins were omitted. The original armament was a single .30 cal M1917 or M1919 MG on a pedestal at the front of the troop compartment but this was regularly replaced by a .50 cal HBM2 MG and in some cases was fitted as standard eventually.

Right: An example of a M3 half-track.
The US Army Half-track: Part One

The larger interior space and more seating meant the M3 was more widely used and became the standard mount of the US Armored Infantry. Along with being used as Command AFVs and ambulances the M3 could also carry out all the same tasks that the M2 was designed for as well.

At the same time as the M2 was being replaced by the M2A1 the same pulpit and MG mount upgrade was added to the M3 thereby creating an M3A1 half-track. The armament of the M3A1 was also increased with the addition of a .50 cal HBM2 MG for the pulpit. Those same three companies that built the M2/M2A1 also managed to churn out some 12,391 M3 half-tracks from May 1941 to September 1943 and then another 4222 M3A1 from October 1943 to June 1945 (1360 were converted from M3 GMC half-tracks).  2209 existing M3 half-tracks were also converted to M3A1 standard as well.

We Need More Half-tracks!
Once the US entered the war it quickly became obvious that there weren’t enough half-tracks for their own needs let alone what their Allies would want so the International Harvester Co. was brought in as well to manufacture even more half-tracks for Lend-Lease needs. These were essentially the same design but constructed differently (“Substitute Standard”) and used welded homogenous armoured 5/16” steel plates instead of the cap screwed ¼” armour plates of the M2/M3.

The layout of these half-tracks was pretty much identical to the previous versions with some subtle external differences so its easy to tell them apart if you know what to look for, The IHC built half-tracks all had rounded rear corners to the troop compartment and flat profile front wheel fenders as opposed to the curved automobile style fenders of the M2/M3. The Battlefront plastic half-track kit includes the optional parts to build either with both fender styles and separate rear walls to choose from – it’s a good idea to check which ones you’ve cut off the sprue before you glue!

The US Army Half-track: Part One The M5 & M5A1
This was the Lend-Lease equivalent of the M3 & M3A1 half-track and of the 4625 M5 half-tracks made from December 1942 until September 1943 most were used by the British and Commonwealth with 420 going to the Soviets and some kept by the US for training at home

Left: An example of a M5 half-track.

In October 1943 the M5 had the same MG pulpit upgrade as the M3 had added, it then become the M5A1 and another 2959 M5A1 were made until production stopped in March 1944. 

The M9 & M9A1
The M9 was the Lend-lease version of the M2 half-track but none were sent out as the upgrade to the M9A1 with the MG pulpit added was introduced before any left the IHC factory. Any M9 that had been completed were converted to M9A1 standard before issue to anyone.
The M9A1 was intended to fulfil the same roles as the M2/M2A1 but was a little bit different in layout, it had a troop compartment that was the same longer length as the M3/M5 and a rear door installed as well. There wasn’t a skate-rail for the MGs installed as it went straight to the pulpit MG mount. The large internal stowage bins were still fitted behind the driver’s compartment but there were only access doors on top and none in the side like the M2/M2A1 had.

Production started in March 1943 and finished in December 1943 with a total of 3433 produced. Just as with the M5/M5A1 most went to Lend-Lease stocks except for a few kept by the US for training at home.

Make Them Better!
Over the wartime operating life of the US half-track series many small improvements were incorporated like the mine racks added along the sides, stronger suspension units and better external stowage racks to try and help Armored Infantry troops from looking too much like Gypsy Caravans as they were sometimes called! 

Right: An example of a M3A1 half-track.

The US Army Half-track: Part One

But the single biggest proposed improvement came from the realisation that there was no real need for different types of half-tracks. Experience in use had shown that the M3/M3A1/M5/M5A1 was more than capable, and did so on many occasions, of covering those entire specialist tasks that the M2/M2A1/M9A1 series was designed to do so they set about designing one half-track that could do it all. The M3A2 was the end result; they even created the M5A2 as a Substitute Standard for Lend-Lease requirements as well. Unfortunately neither of these half-tracks got beyond the pilot versions and only the M3A1 continued in production after March 1944 until June 1945 when it ceased altogether. The Armored Forces had decided to put that effort into designing full tracked troop carriers that could keep up with the tanks in battle.

There actually became a shortage of half-tracks towards the end of the war and many kept at home for training were rebuilt to the latest standard and sent overseas to make up numbers.

Paint Your Half-tracks
This is relatively easy as they were all painted inside and out in Sherman Drab (CWP321) at the factories regardless of the end-user. Lend-Lease half-tracks were handed over to the new owners in the same colour and with the same weapons and fitting as presented to the US Army. Sometimes the Lend-lease AFVs were re-painted but usually only if major modifications were carried out or a change in camouflage requirements for different locations.

The US Army Half-track: Part One For the interior the seats were padded by cushions that were made from a waterproof cotton duck material, again in Sherman Drab (CWP321) initially but faded/dirtied to a khaki type colour quickly in use.  The floor also became dirty and the paint scuffed back to bare metal on top of the tread plate pattern if you wanted to add that lived in look.

The tracks were literally rubber bands and the only exposed metal portions were the teeth running around the middle on the inside and the end caps along the outside edge, otherwise they should be the same colour as you’d use for tyres like a dark grey – remember if your going to add a dust effect it should go inside the pattern and not on the top surface of the tyre.

Left: An example of painted Flames Of War half-track.
Markings were standard for US made vehicles with the ubiquitous Allied white star marking applied facing each direction when new. There were plain white stars on each side of the troop compartment, rear wall and the front radiator grill, there was also a star on top of the engine compartment and this one usually incorporated a white outer ring as well. Many crews painted out or obscured these white stars as they made good aiming points! On each side of the engine compartment there was usually the USA followed by the vehicle serial number, all in white. Unit tactical markings were normally applied on the front bumper and on the rear wall but some units created their own system and applied them to the sides. Crews commonly also added nicknames along the side or on the driver’s doors.

The half-track wasn’t usually camouflaged but some were given the wide black stripes occasionally applied to US AFVS in North-western Europe and whitewash in snowy weather is also another option if you wanted something a little different.

~ Evan.

Recommended Reading
■ Half-track: A History of American Semi-Tracked Vehicles by R.P. Hunnicutt.
■ US Armored Divisions The ETO 1944-45 by S.J. Zaloga.
■ M3 Half-track in Action by J. Mesko.

Last Updated On Wednesday, September 27, 2017 by Chris at Battlefront