Tanks and Armored Vehicles I



Nature and Use

Although primitive designs for horse-powered, armored combat vehicles date back to the fifteenth century, it was not until the nineteenth century that they actually took a cohesive shape. As early as 1898 the U. S. Army had designed and built a motorized gun carriage, which, although fitted with only an armor shield, is considered to be one of the world’s first armored cars. This steam-propelled vehicle, equipped with a .30-caliber Colt machine gun, continued to be built on a small scale into the twentieth century. During the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902), the British army also employed armored trailers and steam traction engines, notably Fowlers, for hauling supplies and guns. These original armored vehicles were obviously limited and were not recognized by the military authorities of any nation until the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918).

Colonel Ernest Swinton (1868-1951), who originated the tank in 1915 and fought in the Boer War, saw the potential for modern firepower and its devastating effect on men in the open. As an officer of the Royal Engineers, he was familiar with mechanical transport, including petrol-engined, Caterpillar-tracked vehicles such as those that had been developed previously in both England and the United States. In October, 1914, Swinton recognized that the line of fortified trenches, which stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, was unlikely to be breached by conventional means of attack by infantry and cavalry. Barbed wire entanglements, secured by intensive fire from artillery and automatic weapons, made a war of movement impossible and precluded any decisive action. Swinton sought a radical solution to the trench deadlock and used the American Holt tractor design, then being used in France, as a starting point. The track was the key, he believed, as it made cross-country movement on rough ground easier. Swinton encountered a great deal of opposition, however, from military authorities who were skeptical about untried methods. The Royal Naval Air Service had sent armored car squadrons to the Calais area as early as September, 1914, to protect the advanced improvised landing strips they had set up for their air squadrons supporting the Naval Brigade. These vehicles were not intended for offensive use, however, and they were largely confined to roads.

In July, 1915, Swinton was sent back to London from his post in France to become secretary of the Dardanelles Committee of the Cabinet. He stood at the center of the group of politicians, officials, soldiers, and technicians whose aim was to create what became known as the tank. Perhaps more important than Swinton’s contribution to production of the tank was his original document outlining tank tactics that were used for years to come. His memorandum described the characteristics, capabilities, and limitations of tanks and defined their basic use, in conjunction with infantry and artillery, to crush enemy wire, to cross trenches, to destroy machine guns, and finally to advance so deeply into enemy defenses that their guns could also be tackled. Swinton also envisaged the need for tanks to communicate by telephone or wireless both with each other and with their supporting arms. In Swinton’s opinion, tanks were merely an auxilliary to infantry, and their independent operation was, in his mind, inconceivable.

The first tanks ran trials in January, 1916; they first entered battle in September of the same year, at Flers-Courcelette, in northern France, where forty-nine vehicles were used to add impetus to a flagging infantry action. Success was limited, however, due to the limited number of tanks available, the lack of crew experience, and the vehicles’ inherent mechanical limitations. However, some of the British army staff were convinced of the tank’s value, and orders increased. The tank’s real, or perhaps more famous, introduction came in November, 1916, at Cambrai, in northern France. For the first time, a joint tank-infantry operation had been carefully planned to fit the strengths and limitations of armored vehicles. The attack was made on a seven-mile front, and the tanks attacked in three waves; each tank worked with the tank behind it to cross the three lines of the German defensive system. Smoke shells were fired to camouflage the tanks’ arrival, and, when the smoke cleared, the Germans were greeted by the large metal vehicles, emerging from the morning fog with guns blazing. So complete was the surprise that some of the German units panicked and fled; however, Cambrai was not an absolute victory for armored vehicles. After the first objective had been achieved, the infantry began to lose contact with the tanks. The tank units were left alone to face a German artillery battery, and many tanks were destroyed. Even though the tanks kept breaking through enemy lines, because there was no infantry there to hold the ground, their gains were useless. The armored attack on Cambrai was significant in that, in one day, it opened a large hole in the German defense system. Only 4,000 British soldiers died at Cambrai, a greater achievement than the 1917 Passchendaele Offensive, which took four months and 400,000 casualties. Although the tank restored mobility to the battlefield and was touted as the answer to the stalemate caused by the machine gun, barbed wire, and entrenchments, many skeptics remained to be convinced of the advantages of armored warfare.


The first tank prototype was called Mother. The lozenge-shaped frame was such that the lower run of the track in contact with the ground approximated the shape and radius of a wheel with a 60-foot diameter. It was calculated that this shape would comfortably cross a 5-foot trench or run up a 4.5-foot vertical parapet. It was in 1916 that the term “tank” first came into use to describe what had hitherto been described as a “landship.” Mother’s success led to the first tank, known as the Mark I, which was identical to Mother except that it was constructed with armor plate instead of boiler plate. The Mark I, used at Flers- Courcelette, was armed with a 6-pounder (pdr) gun and three Hotchkiss machine guns. Improvements to the Mark I followed in subsequent models: Wider track shoes were fitted at every sixth link, armor was slightly increased, and a raised manhole hatch was placed on top to protect the driver. The wheeled cart that trailed the earlier model was also discarded, because it was ineffective on the muddy battlefield.

Tanks in World War I

The first tanks had crews of eight. In these vehicles, steering and gear changing were cumbersome and tiring operations that placed considerable strain on the vehicle’s transmission. By the time the Mark V model had been developed, four-speed gearboxes were used, and the gears could then be changed by one man. The Mark V’s engines were much more powerful, and once they were made to be air-cooled, they became immune to frost. The extreme weight of the early Mark models made it impossible to control the steering and braking by hand power alone; hydraulic lines were introduced to allow control of the massive vehicles. Its armor was also increased, and a rear-firing machine gun was added.

When the United States entered World War I, it jointly produced the Mark VIII with the British. Prior to this time, however, French Renault light tanks and British Mark V tanks were used. German tank projects met with the same type of skepticism that had been prevalent in Britain. Although the tank was used in army exercises, its value in battle was not appreciated by the German General Staff, who considered tanks suitable only for secondary tasks, such as frontier patrol work, gun transport, and reconnaissance. A German infantry force mounted in trucks did execute a lightning strike as part of General Erich von Falkenhayn’s (1861-1922) offensive against Romania in 1916, and the lessons were not lost on the German General Staff.

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