British Battle Tanks; World War I to 1939, by David Fletcher. ISBN 978-1-4728-1755-6 RRP £25.00
When Great Britain declared war upon Imperial Germany in August 1914, the cry of ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be over by Christmas’, was soon forgotten, as a stalemate restricted movement of both infantry and cavalry. Massed artillery bombardments had turned the fields of Northern France and Belgium into a quagmire of mud and both sides soon settled down into a long drawn out game of siege warfare ensconced in a series of trenches and bunkers. Trench warfare wasn’t unknown to the British. They had observed its use in North American during the American Civil War and had used it themselves during the Boer Wars in South Africa. What was new to the British High Command was fighting a major European power for the first time since the days of Napoleon. This ‘industrial’ war of intense artillery barrages, rapid fire machine guns and barbed wire was a something of a shock to many. The days of massed cavalry charges and lines of men facing off against each had gone for good. Britannia might still be ruling the waves but she wasn’t ruling the land. What was needed was a vehicle capable of moving as freely as a ship, well enough armed to attack the enemy and armoured to withstand counter-attacks: In essence, a land battleship.
The British Army had used mechanical vehicles before in the shape of traction engines for towing heavy artillery and a design for a rudimentary ‘offensive’ vehicle had been drawn up as far back as the Crimean War. The downside for these vehicles was that they used steam power. The internal combustion engine was a relatively new invention but recent advances in the aero industry had shown these types of engine to be economical. A small ‘Land Battleship’, propelled by just such an engine, might be a realistic proposition. Winston Churchill set up the Admiralty Landships Committee and a group of designers, engineers and industrialists set to work to design this new and revolutionary war winner.
The book opens briefly with a two page chapter that details the tank concept. Iron chariots have been described in the Bible and Leonardo da Vinci had made a drawing of a wheeled vehicle, carrying cannon in an enclosed structure, as far back as 1482. The science fiction writer H.G. Wells had written about The Land Ironclads as far back as 1903, in a short story for the Strand Magazine. What the author does (briefly) mention in this chapter, is that the French army were also engaged in designing a similar offensive vehicle at about the same time.
Chapter Two really starts the book, dealing mainly with the Marks I, II and III tanks. It describes the trials and tribulations of the various (early) designs. The development of tracks suitable for traversing the bogged down fields was be a major concern. This design requirement, coupled with a trench crossing capability, inspired a radical reappraisal of the ‘Little Willie’ concept (with its tracks low to the ground) and led to the rhomboid ‘wrap around’ track design with which we are now so familiar. This chapter also gives the details of the trials and subsequent modifications made for the final production of the Mark I vehicle. Crew training, vehicle stowage and the first use of this new weapon in action are all covered here. The chapter ends with a brief look at one of the most radical designs ever proposed…The Flying Elephant.
Chapters Three and Four are dedicated to the Marks IV and V respectively illustrating the evolutionary steps of the rhomboid design. Improvements in engines, gearbox and armament and the tanks’ use in battle are well documented in an easy to read format that every layman can follow. Additionally the Marks V* and V** are described,
Chapter Five deals with a wholly new design altogether. Known officially as the Medium Mark A Whippet (or just the Whippet) and the Tritton Chaser to others. Designed by Sir William Tritton as a ‘fast’ tank, armed with just machine guns, it was to be used as a ‘break through’ tank penetrating the enemy rear and causing havoc and confusion. The speed was to be a hair raising 8mph. The chapter then continues with a look at the replacement(s) for the Whippet; the Mediums B, C, D and D*. Alsoworth a brief mention is the Studebaker tank, a one-off design from America which quickly disappeared.
Chapter Six moves on to illustrating some of the later WWI designs which were built either in mock-up form, as prototypes or designed but cancelled as the war ended. The tanks covered are the Marks VI, VII, Heavy Mark VIII and the Mark IX. The Mark VII and the Heavy Mark VIII could be classed (in layman’s terms) as larger versions of the Mark V, whilst the Mark IX wasn’t a tank at all but rather either a troop carrier or supply vehicle. It could even be classed as the world’s first Armoured Personnel Carrier.
Chapter Seven takes the reader into the end of the war, the cancelled orders and the scaling back of tank design and, more importantly, purchase. Times were hard, money was scarce, industry had to change back to peacetime production and there was no stomach for further conflict. Nevertheless some still carried on the work of trying to advance tank design. Winston Churchill managed to secure some funding from the British treasury and some new prototypes were built and tested. The genie was out of the bottle. A few tanks were built and procured for testing with the Vickers company rapidly becoming prominent. The 1921 designed Vickers No.1 tank resembled a shortened version of a late war Medium B but with a turret.
Chapter Eight is basically the Vickers story. Vickers hadn’t been a tank builder during the First World War but its amalgamation with Armstrong-Whitworth brought a whole new design section into Vickers portfolio…a tank design branch. Starting off with the Vickers No.1 tank they went on to develop other vehicles throughout the 1920s and 30s.
Chapter Nine guides the reader through the 1930s examining the various proposals and versions of the British A series of Cruiser tanks. The story of the early British Cruiser tanks could be a book in its own right and the author chooses to leave the reader with more to discover whilst providing sufficient information for a general study. The chapter also delves into some of the Vickers-Armstrong commercial designs which were developed for foreign markets.
Chapter Ten is the highlight of the book for me. The story of the Light Tanks Marks I-VI, from 1927 until 1945 could, again, be a book in itself. It is one of those quintessentially British designs which soldiered on well past its prime, but still performed an essential service in the dark days of WWII. Starting from the earliest of designs, various weapons combinations in a variety of turrets were coupled with these vehicles. Though they were mainly armed with either twin Vickers or Besa machine guns, some were trialled with 15mm or 2pdr guns and some captured examples were modified by the Germans to carry a 105mm howitzer. Pre-war use in India, along with wartime use of these vehicles in other theatres, is also documented in this chapter.
Whilst this book is not an in-depth study of all the early British tanks up to 1939, it is a good starting point for those who like armour or have an interest in armoured warfare. In my opinion it is well written by an author who knows his subject but who doesn’t want to baffle with excessive facts and figures. This book is published by Osprey Publishing and is, therefore, well illustrated with photographs (some rare and interesting ones) and colour artworks of the vehicles depicted. It is a worthy title to add to your library.
Review by Grant Parkin.