The Type 97 Tankette was an improved version of the earlier Type 94 Tankette, itself the most numerous Japanese armoured vehicle of the 1930s. The original Type 94 had been developed as an armoured supply vehicle towing an armoured trailer. Its role was to of carrying supplies to isolated garrisons or to the front line in China. It had been produced in much larger numbers than any other Japanese armoured vehicle in the mid 1930s – by the end of 1937 Japan had produced 1,467 armoured vehicles, of which 746 had been Type 94 Tankettes – and it had been pressed into service in China as a reconnaissance vehicle and even as a combat vehicle.
The Type 97 Tankette followed on from the improved Type 94 of 1936. The most significant change made in the improved Type 94 had been the lowering of the rear idler wheel to the ground, a change which had increased the ground coverage and stability of the tankette and had allowed the installation of a 37mm gun in some vehicles in place of the machine gun of the standard vehicle. The Type 97 retained the track arrangement of the improved Type 94, with four road wheels supported by a bell-crank and spring suspension system, a front drive wheel and a rear idler in contact with the ground.
The first design for the Type 97 Tankette had used the same internal layout as the Type 94, with the driver and engine side-by-side at the front, and the commander and turret at the rear. This first design was also longer than the Type 94, which improved stability but created too big a gap between the driver and the commander. After tests in 1937 a second design was adopted.
This second design saw the new diesel engine moved to the back of the tank. The commander’s turret was moved forward and to the left, placing it behind the driver. This new position also improved the stability of the vehicle, making it a better home for the 37mm Type 94 cannon (although some Type 97 Tankettes carried the 7.7mm Type 97 machine gun).
A total of 616 Type 97 Tankettes were produced between 1937 and 1944, most of them (501) in 1939-40. The Type 97 Tankette was used for armed reconnaissance, staff liaison and to maintain security in the conquered territories. The large numbers produced also meant that the tankettes were found scattered across the Pacific islands. In China, where they were less likely to encounter enemy armour, they could also sometimes be used successfully in combat, although their thin armour made them vulnerable against any anti-tank weapon. During the Second World War a number of tank regiments were formed from smaller tankette units as an emergency measure, but the Type 97 Tankette was of little use against British or American tanks.
Number produced: 616
Length: 12.17ft/ 3.66m
Hull Width: 6.25ft/ 1.8m
Height: 5.83ft/ 1.77m
Weight: 4.2 tons
Engine: 65hp diesel
Max Speed: 25 mph / 40km/h
Armament: 37mm gun