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British Armour in the Great War

Ludendorff, chief of the German Staff, intimated after the war that the Allies won the war because of their tanks and that Germany, on account of lack of raw materials, had been unable to build them in quantity. This was an indirect tribute to the value of the British navy blockade.

During the Great War, a new combatant appeared, without which now it is impossible to imagine any military conflict - the tank. This appearance was due to the fact that the development of the attack lagged behind the development of the defense, and the weapons that existed then practically did not allow breaking through more or less strengthened positions. This was in 1914 the main reason for the transition to positional warfare. Initially, the artillery tried to solve this problem, but it proved to be ineffective, since for the time of the artillery preparation the enemy could take shelter in underground shelters and afterwards finish occupying his own, albeit destroyed, positions. And with machine guns, at that time it was possible to repel the attack of almost any number of infantrymen.

While Leonardo da Vinci had drawn a plan for a tank-like vehicle in the 15th Century, and the Taborites in the 13th Century had even built a few horse-drawn wagon boxes that could he fought from within, the real impetus for fielding a modern day armored vehicle began with the pilots of a Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) squadron in Belgium in 1914-1915.

At that time the squadron had wangled a small stable of Rolls Royce cars - their purpose being to rescue downed pilots. Since the war was still fluid, the RNAS cars could roam about. But the enemy reacted quickly, and not infrequently, when the cars were spotted by German troops, they drew fire. Naturally enough, the RNAS people countered and escalated things; they began adding machineguns to the cars. Then, one day the squadron commander decided to take things a bit farther and experimented with a car whose sides and wheels were covered by boiler plate. It was an instant success. By October 1914, the squadron had 15 such cars. Simultaneously, the value of the armored car had even been appreciated by a few senior Army officials, and a handful of such cars had heen attached to the 3d British Cavalry Division during the Ypres fighting in October 1914.

However, experience by everyone using the cars quickly brought to light their vulnerability to overhead and plunging fire. Also, the Germans had taken to thwarting them by digging ditches across roads. The car drivers responded by lashing boards to their vehicles with which to bridge the ditches. However, with the arrival of trench warfare, the armored cars, their open spaces' gone, were found useless and shipped back to England. But there were a few people who were already thinking of ways to break the trench deadlock.

The decision, as often happens, was simultaneously found by two people - the British Swinton and the Frenchman Etienne. Swinton was quicker by more than a year: he sent his project of the "caterpillar fighter of machine guns" to the War Ministry at the very beginning of the war - October 20, 1914, and Etienne wrote to the commander-in-chief Joseph Jacques Seuzeur Geoffre only on December 20, 1915. In fairness, it is worth noting that as early as 1913, the Lieutenant of the Austro-Hungarian railway troops Burshtyn presented to the War Ministry of his country the project of a fully operational "machine-gun fighter", but some "far-sighted" official put on the draft resolution "Man went crazy ..."

The Belgians first used automobiles to carry machine-guns into action against the German Armored cavalry. They provided protecting armor Cars for Some of the cars, but others went into action without armor. It was not long, however, before cars were designed for war and armored with light steel plating and the machine guns mounted in armored revolving turrets. Such cars were very effective, but they could be used only on roads and in the open country where the way was smooth.

After the first great battle of the Marne the German army dug in and made a front of deep Armies in trenches protected by barbed wire. The armored car was then no longer useful in an offensive move. Moreover, the long battle lines were soon plowed up by high explosives so that everything on wheels was useless. For months the armies were deadlocked because of the deep trenches, the broad belts of barbed wire and the numerous machine gun nests. Many came to believe that neither army could break through the other's defenses, for it required a terrible barrage to cut away the opposing barbed wire entanglements so that the infantry could go forward, and this same barrage gave the enemy ample time to bring up machine guns and reinforcements to stop the break.

What was needed was some sort of a movable fort that could cross No Man's Land over trenches, barbed wire and the uneven shell-torn paths. This armored fort must be able to move over a rough section straight to its objective. It had to be made of steel in order to be bullet-proof against machine guns and rifles, so it would have to weigh many tons. To carry such a weight it must have a broad contact with the ground so that it could get a firm grip.

Lieutenant Colonel Ernest D. Swinton developed the idea of a tracked armored vehicle that could deliver firepower directly upon the German trenches while protecting its crew from machine gun fire. He envisioned such a vehicle first reducing the defenses prior to the infantry’s assault and then providing continuous fire support to the Soldiers once they had secured the trenches. Inspiring Swinton’s vision of the tank was his observation of the American-made Holt caterpillar tractor moving through mud with relative ease in its role as a heavy gun tractor. He found ready at hand the American farm tractor with its endless caterpillar belt, which was an ideal foundation upon which to build his armored fort. For protection against machine gun bullets, the engine, controls, the guns and the crew were entirely enclosed with one-fourth-inch steel plates of special quality, which would ward off both machine gun and shrapnel fire. It could withstand a glancing blow from the lighter field artillery of the enemy. They were driven by a motor of 105 horsepower.

Some, recalling the mobility of the tracked farm tractor, began considering adding tracks to the armored cars. One such person was British Army LTC E.D. Swinton. Actually serving as an Army PIO in France and Belgium in 1914-15, Swinton had seen the early successes of the armored cars. He also recalled reading before the war about an Army test of some tracked vehicles. The idea seemed promising, so he proposed such a concept to a LTC Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defense. Hankey tried to drum up enthusiasm in the War Office, but the head man of that lodge, Lord Kitchner, saw such vehicles only as vulnerable targets to cannon fire.

Swinton found support for his vehicle from First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Churchill had read H.G Wells' story ”The Land Ironclads” from 1903 published in “The Strand” magazine. Churchill prodded the Prime Minister, and the idea began the all-too-often process of wending its way from office-to-office, not eliciting much other than a perfunctory comment, despite the prominent political names associated with the idea.

But finally, the Master General of Ordinance agreed to a trial of a U.S. manufactured Holt Caterpillar Tractor over an obstacle course at Shoeburyness. The test, run in February 1915, took place in the rain. To simulate a military load, the tractor was to tow a load of 5,000 pounds of sandbags. The initial events were a big success, and the many high-ranking officials were impressed as the tractor crawled across the sodden earth, crushing barbed wire in its way. But then it reached the simulated trench. With a snort from its exhausts and a great lurch forward, the tractor tried to cross. The trench walls crumbled, the tracks clawed frantically at the' slippery earth, but the result in minutes was a hopelessly bogged-down tractor.

The Royal Navy, led by Sea Lord Churchill, once more upgraded the idea. Three days after the Shoeburyness disaster, Churchill created the Admiralty Landships Committee under the chairmanship of the Director of Naval Construction. The assigned mission was to develop the idea of a tracked vehicle for land combat.

It seemed as if the idea would die in its infant state. Then came the great Allied 1915 spring offensive. Machinegun and wire festooned trenches doomed it to a dismal failure. New minds searched for ways to break the trench deadlock. At this point LTC Swinton tried again, sending forward a memo on the "Need for Machinegun Destroyers," calling attention to the success of a few caterpillar tractors used to haul heavy artillery. This time the memo was received by a more receptive audience.

The British Landships Committee, formed by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, began work in February 1915, with the objective of developing a ‘land battleship’ to break the stalemate created by trench warfare. Churchill was convinced it could work in reality and was an important figure in pushing the Landships Committee into action. The British practiced disinformation by referring to the prospective vehicle as a “tank” to give the impression they were manufacturing water cisterns With Royal Navy backing, development of the vehicle began amid great secrecy.

The tank was made long enough to span an ordinary trench. They not only crossed trenches with ease but flattened and ironed out all the barbed wire fences. The first British tanks were armed with two six-pounder, rapid fire guns to go against the concrete pill-boxes of the enemy where they did great execution.

Great pains were taken to keep the secret from the enemy until they were ready to attack with them. So when these steel forts were shipped to Tank France they were marked "“water tank" for camouflage to confuse enemy agents; but the British "Tommy" liked the name "tanks," and the name stuck.

The tank was a purely British invention and on its very first unheralded appearance during the Somme offensive, proved to be a success in breaking through the German defensive system and inspiring wholesome fear in the heart of the enemy. From the first these monsters were a great success, for they broke the line with great surprise and struck terror to the Germans who retreated before them.

The tank appeared to offer the perfect solution to the machine gun. The tanks deployed by the British came in two separate models: the male version which included six-pounder guns, and a female, which had only machine guns. Later French and German tanks would also have mounted machine guns. The presence of machine guns is revealing. The tank was seen as a means of carrying the power of the machine gun onto the offensive. It recognized that the best chance the infantry had of executing successful offensive actions against machine guns was to use other machine guns. In the Great War, tanks suffered from mechanical defects and were extremely slow (1.8 miles an hour on level terrain). The tank would ultimately become a decisive weapon in World War II, but it would require years to improve the construction of the weapon and perfect the tactics.

The first British tanks intended for combat possessed a rhomboidal shape, two sets of tracks on the outside of the hull, and side turrets (sponsons) that carried either machine guns or 2-pounder guns. The first British tank weighed about twenty-five tons and carried a crew of eight to ten men. In long trips over difficult country the large tanks broke down through engine trouble, presented a large mark for anti-tank guns, were slow and cumbersome. Because of their size the number of tanks in any offensive was strictly limited. Furthermore, experience showed that the main object of tanks was to carry guns, ammunition and crews, and not to crush enemy defences.

Accordingly a smaller tank was developed capable of carrying two men and a machine gun or small cannon. The first small tanks to take the field were the British Whippets, which traveled up to fifteen miles an hour, were manuvered easily, could coordinate perfectly with infantry and proved a magnificent success from the start. During the Foch counter-offensives the French brought out their counterpart of the Whippet in the baby Renault tank, which also proved a success from the start. The Renault tank consisted of an armoured body thirteen feet in length, six and a half feet in height and three feet in width, equipped with a caterpillar tread and power plant. The armoured plate is from one-fifth to three-fifths of an inch thick of special chrome steel, capable of withstanding small arm ammunition and the burst of small shells.

The engine that powered the first British tanks of 1916 was originally built by the Daimler Company for a large wheeled tractor. It was a six-cylinder, in-line, water-cooled engine which developed 105 b.h.p. at 1,000 rp.m. The first French tank engines, used on the Schneider, St. Chamond and Renault tanks, were also of the automotive, in-line, water-cooled type. Engines of this type fulfilled the requirements of the early tanks reasonably well, particularly as far as the lighter vehicles, such as the Renault F.T., were concerned. But the heavier tanks presented a more difficult problem because of their greater power requirements. For instance, the Daimler engine in the British Mark I tank gave a power-to-weight ratio of less than 4 b.h.p. per ton and when better performance was demanded engines of suitably large size could not be found in the automotive field.

In consequence, by the time British tank development reached the Mark V a special engine was produced for it giving 165 b.h.p. at 1,200 r.p.m. This engine was the first ever to be specifically designed and produced as a tank engine and its designer, Sir Harry Ricardo, laid it out on very robust lines employing a crosshead in the manner of the steam engine, from which, of course, the gasoline engine was mechanically derived; otherwise the engine was of the water-cooled, six-cylinder, in-line type. An alternative way of satisfying the increasing power demands of tanks was to draw on engines from the aircraft field. There great progress was made during the four years of World War I resulting toward the end of that conflict in relatively light and compact engines of over 300 b.h.p. It was inevitable that some of these should be tried in tanks: the 360 b.h.p. Rolls-Royce Eagle and the 240 b.h.p. Siddeley Puma were fitted experimentally in British tanks.

The tank made its combat debut during the British Somme offensive of 1916. The very first British tanks, developed at the instigation of Winston Churchill, went into action 15 September 1916. Nearly 50 of the new vehicles were deployed to support the ongoing offensive, but only 18 actually passed through friendly lines and engaged the Germans. The rest succumbed to mechanical failure, many broke down and had to be left behind. Those tanks that did keep running provided invaluable experience that shaped subsequent doctrine and training development. Their presence on the battlefield panicked German soldiers, who found themselves helpless against a metal monster seemingly impervious to their weapons. Several tanks overran machine gun emplacements, causing German soldiers to flee in panic. Henceforth the psychological impact of the tank upon infantrymen became a factor in the tank’s employment. Despite the low effective numbers of these early armored vehicles, the psychological impact on the enemy [known as "tank fear"] and potential for improvement validated them. The tanks also provided British infantrymen with cover from enemy fire and with cannon fire to support their advance.

During the British Cambrai offensive of November 1917, tanks played a key role. Nearly 400 spearheaded the assault and rapidly breached German defenses in the first large-scale use of armor. Unprepared for the tank onslaught, resistance disintegrated, and the British found themselves moving into the open country behind the German trenches. This unprecedented success on the Western Front demonstrated the tank’s value and spurred further development. The French, too, developed a tank force to provide direct support to infantry alongside the vehicles.

On Wednesday, July 17, 1918, the German army came nearest to ultimate victory. It was the third day of their Gettysburg, their nearest approach to Paris and to world domination. But the German troops were wearied with hard fighting and discouraged by their heavy losses and slight success. Before Ludendorff could recover from the defeat at the Marne, Foch threw Rawlinson's British army against the north side of the Somme pocket on 08 August 1918. Instead of artillery preparation the British used tanks to break the line which was a complete surprise.

General Pershing's offensive had been prepared with consummate skill with vast resources of men and material. The army of tanks which opened the way for the infantry, and later for the cavalry were operated according to tactics long used in practice but never before in actual warfare. The American artillery opened fire before daybreak September 12, treating the Germans to a brief but terrible bombardment and then the Yanks advanced on both sides of the salient using 1,000 tanks. So rapid was the thrust that by the next morning the two American forces had met and the salient ceased to exist.

The fighting of August and early September 1918 had pushed Ludendorff back to the Hindenburg Line, German that powerful system of defenses which Flans had oeen developed during the three years of the war and which, except for the Second Battle of Cambrai, had never been seriously broken at any point. Here the Germans meant to stand and hold out until winter should put an end to the campaign. Then perhaps Germany could convince the Allies that a military decision was impossible and peace could be made, leaving Germany in possession of part of her loot. All this depended upon the German's holding the Hindenburg Line. But Foch was determined to smash this line and convince the enemy that no line that they could fortify would long withstand the new Allied battle tactics with the fleet of tanks for surprise attacks.

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Page last modified: 02-05-2019 13:55:08 ZULU