The British Tanks Without a War II

One of the few pictures of the A.14 to exist. Here it is sitting on a Scammell tank transporter. The turret is rotated to the rear, and the opening for the gun mount is plated over.

The plans for the first version of the A.18 which show the incredibly top-heavy, short appearance, and the location of the engine. One dreads to think how unstable this tank would have been cross-country due to its short track run.

Davidson referred to this as ‘buying a pig in a poke’ and refused to make the purchase until some further reassurances could be obtained. The government and Thornycrofts remained in disagreement until March when a meeting was held and Thornycrofts agreed to lower the sum by £1,000 and take on a consultant, Henry Ricardo, who had previously designed the engine for the Mk V tank of the First World War and had worked on the Merlin engine. The engine also needed to be in production within six months. At the start of February 1939 financial backing for the project was given but it was not until February 1940 that the engine had finished its proof test. On 24 May the project was cancelled, and with it the A.19.

The monstrous A.19 turret lived on, with suggestions to mount the five-man turret on the A.15 Crusader and a modified, lengthened A.13 Mk III, possibly an early version of the Covenanter, all of which came to naught.

The A.14 story did not end with the A.19. In January 1939 the two prototypes being produced by the LMSR came under review and the decision to keep the A.14E1, as designed and produced to the existing schematic as soon as possible, was taken. However, the A.14E2 would have its weight brought down to 24 tons. This decision was driven by the Army getting a new type of pontoon bridge with an upper weight limit of 24 tons, at the time the limit that bridging technology could deliver.

During this time the A.14E1 had been under construction at LMSR’s workshops in Kentish Town. Some problems with component supply in the suspension had delayed it, but in November 1938 the tank was nearing completion and it was ready for its trials on 18 May 1939. Although the tank was running, a fault had occurred in the steering, but this was not seen as a major problem and could easily be fixed.

That is as far as the A.14 seems to have progressed. In April 1939 the tank was compared against the A.15 Crusader and was deemed uneconomical due to its weight and the higher number of man hours needed. It was also suggested that the A.14E2 be completed, but with an A.19 turret. However, Davidson was still reluctant to proceed with the A.14, and summoned a meeting of all concerned. This meeting was held on 26 June 1939 and was opened by Davidson announcing that a picture of a new German medium had been obtained. It was one of the Neubaufahrzeug tanks, although which of the two designs is not clear. What followed may have been this German tank’s only victory over an enemy tank. Due to its size and dimensions it was guessed that the armour on it was only 25mm, which was close to the actual thickness. Due to the appearance of this tank the General Staff now had a requirement for a tank armoured to 40mm basis, weighing under 24 tons and with a speed of 25mph. The meeting recognised this was more than likely unobtainable.

The meeting had two tanks to consider, the A.14E2 modified again to meet the requirement and the modified A13 Mk III. Unable to choose, those attending had the idea of inviting Mr Ivatt along to another meeting and letting him decide the future course for the LMSR. This meeting was held on 30 June 1939, and the cases for both tanks were put forward. Mr Ivatt, and his companion, Mr Caldwell, unsurprisingly selected the A.13 option as the easier tank for LMSR to produce. The partly-completed A.14E2 would be used as spares to keep the A.14E1 running as long as possible, and thus the project faded into history with the A.14E1 being used as an testbed vehicle.

Back in 1937, when Davidson was being convinced to start the A.14 project he also had another tank design that he was not using. This would be designated the A.16 and run in parallel development to the A.14. In many discussions, the two would be compared as they competed against each other. Despite this, they were not competing designs, and it just shows how strange were British thoughts of the period, since the A.16 was sometimes called a ‘battlecruiser’ class, while the A.14 was a medium. Considering the previously described role of the heavy cruiser, and the existence of the medium tank, it is impossible to say how they differed in the minds of those who assigned classes to these designs.

On 27 November 1937 Davidson was being urged by other departments to proceed with the A.16. The main factor in the start of the A.16 programme was cost. Using standard A.13 components, Nuffield Mechanisation Ltd considered it possible to produce a heavy cruiser at much lower cost than normal. Their opening offer was £15,000 for two pilot models, from scratch. Thus the mock-up was ordered, along with research. However, in December, it was decided that the mock-up would be constructed at the Royal Ordnance factory at Woolwich.

In January 1938 the first scheme for how the A.16 would be engineered appeared from Nuffields. The plan was to take an A.13 final drive and reduce the ratio, thus making the set-up smaller. This allowed for larger brakes to deal with the much heavier weight, due to thicker armour than the A.13. The A.16 had the same armour as the A.14, at 30mm basis. Davidson, however, still lacked enthusiasm and refused to sanction a pilot model due to the A.13E2 still being under development. Another concern of his was the lack of modern tracks; images of the early A.13 prototypes show simple, crude metal plates for tracks.

Another delay came from a batch of missing drawings concerning the A.16 which were chased up with some considerable haste. At the same time, Nuffields were able to report that they had despatched drawings of components to a company called Poldersteel for quotations. One can only imagine how this company had been selected, or if it elicited any comments from the government, since the company was in Austria!

By mid-February a group of design experts (including Martel) was able to offer reassurances that the mistakes in the A.13 design would not be repeated, and pointed out that the price was so low that there should be some movement. Because of these considerations, a single soft-boat prototype was ordered. A considerable portion of the money came from the official cancellation of the A.15 which freed up £10,000.

By 1 March the first drawings of the fighting compartment, and a new design of shock absorbers, were ready, and the government had arranged for armour plate to be provided from Hadfields. A day later, Martel met Hotblack again, as the latter was now serving in another part of the War Office. Both were accompanied by several other officers, including the commander of 1 Tank Brigade. Together they inspected the mock-up of the A.16 at the Royal Ordnance factory in Woolwich. Most of the design was authorised, with special praise seemingly aimed at the mounting of the smoke mortar. This piece was an ECLA breech-loader, located in an extension of the front turret plate. For some time the ability to fire smoke had been desired. For example, in 1936 an officer of the tank unit deployed to help quell the Arab revolt in Palestine had suggested that a smoke mortar would have been extremely useful; originally he suggested something along the lines of a Stokes mortar.

One fault that was spotted by the viewing officers, was that the sub-turret gunners had insufficient legroom, and so the turrets would have to be redesigned. Nuffields had been carrying out a large amount of research on new tracks for the A.16 which culminated in June when a Mr Clarke, presumably an engineer of the company, handed over the finalised designs. Nuffields then requested that production of the tracks begin immediately.

At the end of June Martel reported back to the Mechanisation Board on the particulars of the engine and transmission of the A.16. On the last point, there was consideration of adopting a single type of Wilson gearbox for both A.13 and A.16. As an alternative, Martel had visited the Cotal works in France where he had viewed their electrically-controlled double gearbox, which was suitable for the A.16. One of course remembers the decision not to accept foreign engines for supply reasons and wonders if this also applied to the gearbox. Either way, the board made another choice: LMSR would get the contract to produce the A.16 turret, as it was similar to the A.14 turret. A few days later another meeting was held at which the date of completion for the pilot model was announced as ‘the end of 1938’. However, despite this, due to other commitments, Nuffields could not start production until 1940. Initial production tanks would have the Liberty engine, but the Meadows 500hp engine or a CI diesel engine should be considered for future builds, as would the Wilson gearbox, which was discounted for the first production run as too immature in its development.

The completion date for the A.16E1 was further refined on 1 July to ‘the beginning of October’. Nuffields stated that they would make every endeavour to reach this date, even going so far as to manufacture components they had already sub-contracted out. Two weeks later another pilot model of the A.16 was ordered.

The A.16E2 was, the Mechanisation Board very forcefully warned, not to be used as ‘an excuse to launch out into a number of alternative designs’

The very next action, on the face of it, seems to fly directly in the face of this warning. Davidson visited the Vickers Armstrong works at Chertsey in mid-February 1939 to inspect the A.18, which we will look at later. Upon seeing the arrangement of the hull machine guns on the A.18, he desired that the A.16E2 be modified to match. This would have required a re-work of the driver’s compartment. As this would have unforeseen implications on the tank all further work was halted, and the tank was never completed.

The complete A.16E1 was delivered on 19 September 1939. It was not in running condition, due to a failure of the final drive. Instead of returning the tank, it was accepted simply because it was not going to go into production, so there seemed to be very little point in sending it back for a fix. It may be that the declaration of war had caused a focusing of minds and the culling of quite a few programmes. As to the fate of the A.16E1, it seems that it went the way of most failed prototypes, to be used in Frankenstein-like experiments by the Army. In February 1940, when the Thornycroft RY8 finished its proof test, it was listed as ready to be fitted to the A.16E1, when that vehicle was made available. A worse fate awaited it after they finished with it. The utterly smashed hulk of the A.16E1 was last seen in 1985 at Hangmoor Hill ranges. After forty years as a target hulk it was not considered worthwhile to recover and restore.

There is one final entry on the A.16 story: in 1941 a final bill for the A.16E1 and incomplete A.16E2. It came to £15,600. 2s. 1d.

Effectively the A.14 and A.16 seemed to be fighting for the same spot in the army as a ‘battlecruiser’ or ‘medium’ class of tank. Earlier, the A.14 was only ever seen as a test vehicle, yet there seems to have been discussion of producing it as a combat vehicle. On 16 December 1938 both vehicles came under scrutiny: the choice was between it (more expemsive but better at ditch crossing and ready sooner) and the cheaper A.16, which was within the General Staff weight requirements, and was a smaller tank. The the problems with the A.16 were that it would be in production much later and the Christie suspension, although proven, had given trouble when loaded up to the A.16’s weight. In the end the A.16 became the preferred option. In any case, due to events, neither saw life past a single prototype and a half-complete second prototype.

Previously in this narrative I have mentioned the A. 18, briefly, and how it affected the development, and demise, of the A.16E2. On 18 June 1938, Hotblack wrote to Martel, and a couple of other officers, outlining that Vickers had spare facilities and were pushing for design work. The two options for work were either a heavy cruiser, for which the A.16 already filled the slot, or an ‘improved light cruiser’. What followed was some interesting discussion between the departments regarding anti-tank weapons. First the departments looked at current hand-held and small-arms performance, and tried to project where they would be in a few years. Oddly for small-arms performance, a .276 (about 6.9mm) calibre bullet was used, and it was stated that this would likely be the standard bullet in five years’ time. The British did start looking at that calibre, but not until the early 1950s. Also under consideration were 20mm anti-tank weapons. It was quickly stated that a tank for protection against these weapons would need to be in the 40mm range now, and rapidly increased to 50mm which, to British minds, was entering the Infantry-tank class.

In the case of larger anti-tank guns, one of the departments did admit that a 25-pounder had been tested as an anti-tank gun, and that it had penetrated 70mm at 825 yards range. Reassuringly, the writer said that it was unlikely that anti-tank guns would reach this calibre in five years, although guns around 55mm were possible, as the Germans were looking at a 52mm, and the British had just started work on such a gun, which would eventually be the 6-pounder. With it impossible to armour against contemporary threats it was decided only to protect against hand-held weapons such as anti-tank rifles and smaller.

From what can be seen, there was no difference between this improved light cruiser and a heavy cruiser which neatly shows the mess of definitions that plagued British tank development of the time.

At a meeting to discuss the situation in July, the War Office said it had requirements for an infantry tank in the 70mm class, and two tanks in the 30mm class, one armed with nothing but Czech ZB machine guns, the other with a 2-pounder and the usual array of five air-cooled ZB machine guns.

The Vickers representatives admitted that they had been thinking along the lines of the 30mm class armed with a 2-pounder and so detailed discussions started. One thing that Vickers were keen to stress was their new flexible track steering, as fitted to the A.17. They made a number of claims about this new track. One was that with it rolling resistance was one quarter less than the conventional track on the Mk VIB light tank, and that there was much less power lost. Because of this latter claim, a much higher power-to-weight ratio, and a smaller engine, could be implemented than would be usual. Several department heads questioned this claim on several occasions, but Vickers were adamant that they could get the weight down to twelve tons and reach 30mph in a 30mm armoured machine, with a Meadows 160hp engine.

One other stumbling block was the range. The requirements were for a tank with 200 miles range a figure that could only be achieved with external drop tanks. At first the board wanted them armoured, but this would have driven the weight up. So self-sealing jettisonable fuel tanks were accepted. The other curiosity was that the Meadows was a flat-type engine mounted under the turret, meaning that the tank was much shorter on the rear than would be expected, but much taller, with the look of a tank that had been cut in half. One flaw of having such a short track run was that the trench crossing was only 6 feet, later increased to 6 feet 6 inches. Another complaint that Vickers had to address from their initial design was the gun depression. Vickers had designed for -15 degrees, but the minimum was to be increased to -20. A soft-boat and mock-up was ordered, to be ready within eighteen months and a second pilot model ready six months after that.

The mock-up was ready by October that year. However, later, in February 1939, some new design changes had been made. These were the ones that had a knock-on effect on the A.16E2. Instead of using normal sub-turrets, these had been replaced by a pair of sloping plates on either side of the driver, with the twin machine guns mounted in them. The guns had a traverse of 115 degrees, with elevation of +15/-10 degrees. The mounting saved about 7 hundredweight (just over a third of a ton) from the overall weight. This was a revolutionary step as, previously, the myriad of sub-turrets had taken a considerable part of the overall weight of the tank. There was concern about the level of protection these mounts provided and a mock-up for firing tests was requested and even ordered. When this mock-up was about 60 per cent complete, on 21 October 1939, the A.18 project was cancelled and all contracts closed.