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Type 97 Chi-Ha vs. M4 Sherman on Saipan

The Type 97 Chi-Ha was a medium tank developed by the Imperial Japanese Army in the late 1930s, and it played a significant role in Japan’s armored warfare strategies during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. Its development, operational history, and impact on the battlefield provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of armored warfare in the Asia-Pacific region.

Development and Design
The Type 97 Chi-Ha was developed as a successor to the earlier Type 89 I-Go, which was deemed insufficient against emerging foreign tank designs. Designed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the Type 97 aimed to balance firepower, mobility, and protection within the technological and industrial constraints faced by Japan at the time. The tank was equipped with a 57mm main gun, which was adequate against contemporary armored threats when it was first introduced. However, as the war progressed, this armament became increasingly obsolete against allied armor, leading to the development of the Shinhoto Chi-Ha, which featured an upgraded 47mm high-velocity gun in a new turret.
The armor of the Type 97 was relatively thin, reflecting the Japanese doctrinal emphasis on speed and maneuverability over direct engagement with enemy tanks. It featured a diesel engine, which was somewhat unusual for the time, providing a good balance of power, reliability, and range.
Specifications:

  • Crew: The tank had a crew of three: commander, gunner, and driver.
  • Armament: The primary armament was a Type 97 57mm tank gun. The tank also had one or two 7.7mm Type 97 machine guns for anti-infantry and anti-aircraft purposes.
  • Armor: The armor of the Type 97 Chi-Ha ranged from 8mm to 25mm, providing limited protection against enemy fire.
  • Engine: The tank was powered by a Mitsubishi Type 97 V-12 diesel engine, providing a top speed of around 38 km/h (24 mph).

Variants:

  • The Type 97 Chi-Ha underwent several modifications and variants throughout its production. One notable variant was the Type 97 Shinhoto Chi-Ha, which featured an improved turret design and a more powerful Type 1 47mm tank gun.
Picture

A photo of the command Shinhoto Chi-Ha on Saipan, the tank of Lt. Nishidate, commander of the 3rd Company, 9th Tank Regiment, with the provincial name “Hi-Go” painted on the hull side Image from the National Archives and Records Administration

Combat History:
The Type 97 saw extensive service across various theaters of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, from the vast plains of China to the jungles of Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. Its initial engagements in China demonstrated its superiority over Chinese and Soviet-supplied tanks. However, these successes were somewhat misleading, as the tank’s limitations were not fully exposed against the poorly equipped Chinese forces.
As the Pacific War escalated, the Type 97 encountered more formidable opponents, such as the British Matilda and American M4 Sherman tanks. In these contexts, the Type 97’s weaknesses in armor and firepower became glaringly apparent. Despite these disadvantages, Japanese crews often used their tanks in innovative ways, leveraging the terrain and employing ambush tactics to offset their technological shortcomings.

  1. Battle of Khalkhin Gol (1939): The Type 97 Chi-Ha was used during the Battle of Khalkhin Gol against the Soviet Union and Mongolian forces. However, the Japanese military faced difficulties due to the Soviet Union’s well-coordinated defensive tactics and superior tanks.
  2. Invasion of Malaya (1941-1942): The Type 97 Chi-Ha was utilized during the invasion of Malaya and the subsequent campaign in the Pacific. It faced British and Commonwealth forces but performed relatively well in the early stages of the conflict.
  3. Battle of Singapore (1942): The Type 97 Chi-Ha participated in the Battle of Singapore, where Japanese forces decisively defeated British and Allied troops. The tank played a role in the successful Japanese land offensive.
  4. Invasion of the Philippines (1941-1942): Japanese forces, including Type 97 Chi-Has, were involved in the invasion of the Philippines, where they faced American and Filipino defenders. The tank contributed to the Japanese victory in the early stages of the campaign.
  5. Burma Campaign (1942-1943): The Type 97 Chi-Ha saw action in the Burma Campaign, where Japanese forces faced British and Allied troops. The tank was effective in the initial stages of the campaign, but the challenging terrain and logistical issues impacted its performance.
Picture
Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tank. (2024, February 8). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_97_Chi-Ha_medium_tank

While the Type 97 Chi-Ha was involved in these early-war campaigns and achieved success against less heavily armed opponents, its limitations became more apparent as the war progressed. The tank struggled against the better-armored and armed tanks fielded by the Allies in the later stages of World War II, as was apparent during the Battle of Saipan.
One of the notable battles where the Type 97 Chi-Ha was used against American forces was the Battle of Saipan, which took place from June 15 to July 9, 1944, during the Pacific Campaign of World War II. The battle was a critical part of the American “island-hopping” strategy aimed at capturing key islands in the Pacific and moving closer to Japan.

Background
Saipan, part of the Mariana Islands, was a strategic location due to its airfields and position, allowing air raids on the Japanese mainland. The Japanese garrison on Saipan included several armored units equipped with Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks, among other assets. These tanks were intended to bolster the island’s defenses against the anticipated American invasion.
The Battle The American invasion began with a massive pre-landing bombardment, followed by amphibious landings on Saipan’s west coast. The U.S. forces faced fierce resistance from the entrenched Japanese defenders, who utilized the rugged terrain and caves and prepared positions to their advantage.
Japanese armor, including the Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks, was used in counterattacks against the American beachheads and advancing troops. One notable engagement involving the Type 97 tanks occurred in the vicinity of Aslito Airfield (later renamed Isely Field by the Americans), where the tanks supported infantry assaults against American positions.
Challenges Faced by the Type 97 Chi-Ha The Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks were at a significant disadvantage against the superior firepower and armor of the American M4 Sherman tanks and tank destroyers. The 57mm main gun of the Type 97 was largely ineffective against the frontal armor of the Sherman, requiring the Japanese to attempt flanking maneuvers or close-range ambushes to achieve any success.
Moreover, the open terrain of Saipan, unlike the jungles of Southeast Asia or the islands’ dense forests, offered little cover for the Japanese tanks, making them vulnerable to anti-tank weapons, artillery, and air strikes. American air superiority further compounded the difficulties faced by Japanese armored units, limiting their mobility and effectiveness.

Outcome
Despite their valiant efforts, the Japanese counterattacks, including those involving Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks, were ultimately unsuccessful in repelling the American invasion. The battle resulted in a decisive American victory, with the capture of Saipan enabling air raids on the Japanese mainland and significantly contributing to the eventual Allied victory in the Pacific.
The use of Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks at Saipan exemplifies the challenges faced by Japanese armored forces when confronting technologically superior American tanks and combined arms tactics. It also highlights the limitations of the Type 97 Chi-Ha in direct tank engagements, underscoring the broader issues of Japanese tank design and doctrine during World War II.

Picture
M4 Sherman. (2024, February 12). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M4_Sherman

Impact and Legacy
The impact of Type 97 Chi-Ha on the battlefield was a mixed affair. While it initially provided the Japanese Imperial Army with a mobile and versatile armored platform, its effectiveness waned as allied technological advancements outpaced Japanese industrial capabilities. The tank’s legacy is thus a testament to the challenges faced by Japan in maintaining parity with its adversaries in the arms race of World War II.
Moreover, the Type 97 Chi-Ha holds a significant place in military history as a symbol of Japan’s armored warfare efforts. It was the most widely produced Japanese medium tank of the era, serving in various capacities throughout the war and even continuing in limited service post-war under different flags.
In conclusion, the Type 97 Chi-Ha represents a critical chapter in the history of armored warfare. Its development reflects the strategic priorities and industrial limitations of Japan in the lead-up to World War II, while its operational history underscores the dynamic nature of technological evolution in the context of global conflict. Despite its shortcomings, the Type 97 Chi-Ha remains an iconic vehicle, embodying the complexities of war and the relentless pursuit of advancement in military technology.

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