Tanks Pt. 2



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 10. Last episode we discussed a bit about the early developments of the tank before it went into battle in September 1916. This included the early designs and changes to what would become known as the tank, some of the production difficulties, and then how they were sent to the front. This episode we will carry forward that story as we look at the contribution of the tanks for the rest of the war. This will include a bit of battlefield performance, but I would like to remind everyone that battlefield information is not the purpose of these episodes so we will not be really focusing on that. Also, before we dive in here, I have to be honest, while I have the next 6 months or so of premium episodes planned out, I need ideas, topics, and questions to dig into. So if you have anything that you want to hear about, even if it sounds small, it may turn into far more than you expect.

Last month we talked about the tanks going into battle in September 1916 and most of them did not do so well, only a small fraction of the tanks available for the attack actually got to the start line, and then only a small number of those actually went into action. When I first read about the lack of results from the tanks, I expected the British commanders to have a similar assessment. They had spent all of this time and effort creating these new machines and they had not produced the results that were hoped for, mostly due to the fact that they had been almost completely unreliable. In the days following the first large attack there were other smaller actions where just a handful, or even just one tank, were used against specific objectives. In these instances the tanks seem to have performed much better, at least where they were able to keep running long enough to participate. When just a few tanks were used they enabled the accompanying British units to make some quick and clean tactical successes like the capturing of the village of Gueudecourt where just a single female tank, with only machine guns for armament, allowed the capture of the village with only a handful of British casualties and the capture of 400 German prisoners. These sort of actions played an important part in early evaluations of the tanks and in my mind these greater successes make some sense. Many of the problems of the tanks, and especially the lack of endurance and vulnerability to massed artillery fire, were much lessened when they were used in smaller surprise attacks where the goals were nearby and the Germans were not as prepared. Overall, Haig judged the tank to be a success and was happy with what he had seen. After the first actions Swinton had arrived at Haig’s headquarters expecting disappointment, but he did not get that feeling from Haig or his staff, all of which were happy. Sure, the tanks had not achieved everything set before them, but they what they were able to do had been done in fine fashion. Haig would write that “Wherever the tanks advanced we took our objectives, and where they did not advance we failed to take our objectives.” Haig also knew how hot off the presses the tanks were, and how little time the crews had to prepare, these facts combined with the fact that it was an entirely new weapons platform made Haig very bullish on the future prospects. Training, reliability, all of this could be fixed in time. Haig wanted a 1,000 more tanks, with an improved design, as soon as possible. This request, and the requests for various improvements began to filter back to London, and also to the press, where they had a field day. The tank became all the rage in the British press, a new weapons system, seen on the battlefield for the first time, such a glorious day.

While the public was finding out about the tanks for the first time through the words of newmen all over Britain, there were also good chunks of the British government who were just as new to the information, and there were mixed reactions among the various groups. One of the problems was that the Conservatives really did not like Churchill, after he had abandoned them and moved to the other side of the aisle and his role in the development, and his soon promotion to Minister of Munitions due to his role in the tank development, caused a lot of friction. There was also a lot of debate and discussion about this 1,000 tank order that Haig had put in. One thing that quicly became apparent was that it was going to take a long time to get 1,000 tanks to the army. The tenative date had been set for the order to be completed by the early spring of 1917, but this date began to slip almost immediately. Once Churchill and the Ministry of Munitions started crunching numbers they had to push the date for delivery back to June 1917, and admit that they would probably only have about 250 done by spring. As the government tried to rapidly scale up the production of tanks, and other fighting vehicles to go along with them, friction between the army, and the government, and the producers, continued to grow and grow. Part of this were the constantly in-flux nature of the armies requests and demands. It got so bad that at a few point, especialy in the early fall of 1916, there was discussions about reducing the number of tanks to 0 and just forgetting the whole thing. Part of this was due to costs, part due to army demands for various changes, part due to manufacturers not able to obtain critical materials. Stern was at the forefront of all of these discussions and he always maintained his belief that it was absolutely critical that the tanks be made, and they be made in huge numbers regardless of how difficult or costly that might be. Convincing everybody else was generally the problem, and after fighting with all of the various ministries and ministers Stern had to eventually just start pulling out his two trump cards to get things done, and these trump cards were big ones, and they came in the form of Lloyd George and Haig. Using these trumps, and the insane amounts of political capital that they had, Stern was able to keep everything going and to keep enough support together until the Mark IV tanks began to arrive in sufficient numbers to the army, at which point everybody seems to have gotten back on board the idea, at least for the time being. All of these efforts were critical, the securing of support and the pushing through of production due to how long it was taking to make the hundreds of tanks thought necessary to make any real difference in the war. This allowed the British to deliver 800 Mark IV tanks between their creation and September 1917. Without Stern constantly pushing all the various groups in Britain forward they probably would have been stuck with just a few hundred Mark Iis and IIIs for a very long time, maybe all the way until the end of the war. This would have completely changed the tank landscape for the British for the rest of the war.

Lets talk about the Mark IV for just a bit. It would be sort of THE British tank during the war. It would be the most produced, with over a thousand created in total, there would be tanks that came after it, the Mark V, but it would mostly just be a refinement of the IV and it would come to late for its numbers to ever match those of the IV. The reason for the development of the Mark IV was rooted in the various weaknesses of all of the previous tank designs. It was also a function of the tank designers refusing to make any meaningful changes to the Mark 2 and Mark 3 while they were still being produced. They feared that any large changes to existing tanks specifications would slow the production too much, without having the real benefits of just creating a new design. There were loftier goals in the original Mark IV plans, but these would eventually be scaled back, making it look far more like the Mark III than initially thought. However, that did not mean that it did not greatly improve upon the earlier designs. Most of this revolved around the vulnerabilities of the armor and in the ability to move across the battlefield terrain. Concerns with these aspects of the tank began to filter back to the design teams in the last few months of 1916. As always, with any military product that is seeing its first usage in combat, the list of changes the army wanted was lengthy, here is just a sample as provided by David Glanfield in Devil’s Chariots. “calling for more powerful engines, stronger armour, anti-splash measures, non-shattering prisms, better bomb protection of roofs, modified guns and mountings, means of avoiding ‘bellying’, provision for track adjustment from inside the tank under fire and a redesign of the sponsons which tended to wedge into the ground when tanks heeled over, leaving them ditched and highly vulnerable to artillery.” Stern and the other designers took all of this feedback and started trying to fix the problems. The one thing that would not change was the armament, it would still be the same 6 pounder guns and machine guns, these were in general working great, and besides there were bigger problems to solve. First of all they were given a new 150 horsepower engine designed by Harry Ricardo who was the young age of 32. This would be the primary engine used for the Mark IV tanks and 700 were ordered instantly. They would give Ricardo a bit leg up on later tank orders, and his engines would be the standard for all British tanks in the war, although later engines would be more powerful. Another change relating to the engine was the move of the primary fuel tank from inside the cabin to a heavily armored tank on the back of the vehicle. This might seem a bit scary, but it had two huge benefits, the first was that it greatly increased the room inside the tank, allowed the crew to be more efficient at their jobs. The second benefit was that it greatly reduced the chance of a fire occurring inside the tank. With fire being such a huge cause of casualties among tankers in the Mark II and Mark III, this was great. The armor was also increased for the tank, a change necessitated by the introduction of German armor piercing bullets which were able to easily punch through the lighter armor on the older vehicles. The last large change make to the Mark IV was the change in transmission that meant that only one man was needed to control the engine and drive the tank. There were of course a wide range of other smaller changes, like wider track shoes, quality of life changes for the crew areas, the ability to fold the weapon sponsons inward for transport, are just a few of these. The first set of Mark IV tanks would arrive for testing and training in April 1917, which was later than hoped but would be in time for any summer offensives. One further piece of feedback from the front was that spares simply had to be available in larger numbers. Special care was given to having enough spares for areas that were proving to wear out far faster than expected, especially those parts of the tracks such as shoes and sprockets. In some of the muddier battlefields these parts were wearing out many times faster than expected, with the mud quickly grinding them down.

Easily the most recognizable tank action of 1917 was what would happen at Cambrai late in the year, but that was not the first tank operation of the year. Instead that took place in April in Arras. For this attack there were supposed to be 2 brigades of tanks available, with a total of 240 tanks. Unfortunately the British were nowhere close to being able to provide this number to fill out the order of battle, and instead there were only about 60 tanks that would be available at the time. These would be put under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Elies. While he had 60 tanks under his command, he would only get about 40 of the Mark II and Mark IIIs to the start line on April 9th for the Third Army to use. These 40 were divided among the various objectives and when the attack happened the biggest problem had nothing to do with German actions, but instead the terrain in the area. The ground was soft, and had been under constant artillery fire which simply ground it up, very few of the tanks were able to successfully navigate this terrain and they often got bogged down and became easy targets for German artillery. This included all of the tanks allocated to the Candadians who would have their date with destiny at Vimy Ridge during this action. It was very clear by this point that hard, mostly undisturbed ground was the ideal situation for tank operations, but that would be hard to find, and the British would be slow to realize this completely. Which sort of explains why tanks were used in Flanders in July. In this action the Tank Corps, as part of the Third Battle of Ypres, had 216 tanks, many of which were of the nice new shiny Mark IV variety. During this battle the goal of the tanks was to push with the infantry through the first, second, and even third line of German defenses. However, I don’t know if you could design a battlefield less suited for tanks than the mud of Flanders during the Third battle of Ypres, which was preceded by almost a month of artillery preparations. The tanks just slid off any available roads, many of them completely stuck in shell craters or just in the mud within meters of their starting areas. Of the 136 tanks that were available on the day of the attack, only about 19 were still running and mobile by the end of the day. This seems to have triggered something in the British commanders, finally convincing them that maybe putting large metal machines, that already had issues with mobility, in the giant mud puddle that was Flanders, and telling them to try and go forward was not a good plan.

While there were these types of failures, it did not greatly shake Haig’s belief that they were the future and they would be an important part of future British successes. He would write to General Robertson back in London late in the summer that “The further experience of the recent battle around Arras confirms my view that as large a number of reliable tanks should be put into the Field as soon as possible. Although the present tank is admittedly defective in many respects, the excellent service rendered by a percentage on every occasion on which we have used them has made it quite clear that a force of well organised reliable tanks is a necessity for the modern battle, and is likely to greatly contribute to winning a victory and reaping its fruits.” Haig’s continued support for the tanks, and the political power that he wielded, meant that emphasis on tank created increased and this also included the creation of a medium tank, something that the British had not done so far. This was not solely a British idea or invention, in fact the French had been actively pursuing the use of smaller and more nimble tanks for the entire time that the British had been working on their larger behemoths. While the British Mark IV tanks might be good for battering the German lines ,they were really unable to fulfill the sort of cavalry role that some generals wanted them to. They wanted something fast and with good range that could not just punch through the German lines, but also to keep going beyond them. This was the path that the French went down with their ganks, and these smaller machines, which each was less powerful, could be fielded in much greater numbers. The British would get into this game was well with the creation of the 14-ton Whippet Tank, which was half the size of the Mark IV and was much smaller and faster, and had a much great range. These Whippets were first imagined in late 1916, but they would not be seen on the battlefield until the battle of Cambrai in late 1917. For those with good memories you may remember we discussed the Whippets a bit during the cavalry episodes when discussing the events of the battle of Cambrai.

The Cambrai region was one of open, rolling countryside, with firm ground that had not been greatly disturbed by the war so far. It was in the German Hindenburg line that they had retreated to earlier in 1917, which meant that it was about as fresh of country as anywhere along the front. The British could choose this area for their next tank attack and in this area the tanks would finally be able to use some form of tactics and strategy since it was an area chosen for a tank attack, not an attack chosen for infantry with tanks added as an afterthought. Here is a description of the tactics that would be used as described by Bryan Cooper in his book Tank Battles of World War 1 “The tactics eventually devised by Fuller were based on an ingenious system of leapfrogging for which the tanks were formed into sections of three, operating together. The advance tank was to go forward through the German wire, flattening it for the oncoming infantry. When it came to the first trench it would not cross but turn left and drive parallel along the edge, shooting down the enemy to protect the two main body tanks following behind. One of these was to drop its fascine in the trenches at a selected spot, cross over and also turn left to attack along the other side of the trench. The third tank meanwhile would also cross over and make for the next line of trenches” These tanks would then be accompanied by infantry with 3 platoons assigned to follow up each group of 3 tanks, with the task of completing any mopping up attacks on German positions. The following message was sent to the crews of all of the tanks that would be participating in the assault “1. Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months—to operate on good going in the van of the battle. 2. All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation. 3. It remains for unit commanders and tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself. 4. In the light of past experience I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands. 5. I propose leading the attack in the centre division. Hugh Elles, Brig-Gen Commanding Tank Corps” Cambrai would be a completely different experience for the tankers, with one crew member describing it with these words “It seemed almost too good to be true this steady rumbling forward over marvellous going, no craters in the ground, no shelling from the enemy, and our infantry following steadily behind. Emerging out of the gloom, a dark mass came steadily towards us—the German wire. It appeared absolutely impenetrable. It was certainly the thickest and deepest I had ever seen, stretching in front of us in three belts, each about 50 yards deep. It neither stopped our tank nor broke up and wound round the tracks as we had feared, but squashed flat as we moved forward and remained flat. A broad carpet of wire was left behind us, as wide as our tank, over which the infantry were able to pick their way without any difficulty.” It very quickly became apparent how much better the tanks performed when they were given the opportunity to operate in an area of their choosing. By midday the tanks had broken through the German lines and advanced 5 miles, capturing 100 artillery pieces and 8,000 German prisoners in the process. This balanced against only about 4,000 British casualties. There were still issues to be solved with the tanks, and they still could not continue their advance forever, but these gains were simply phenomenal. One problem that still was not solved, and that we know today, after a century of hindsight is extremely difficult, was how the tanks should behave when confronted with villages and towns. Here is Fuller, the creator of the tank tactics mentioned earlier, talking about the attack on the village of Fontaine where the tanks found themselves mostly unprepared “There was horrible slaughter in Fontaine, and I, who had spent three weeks before the battle in thinking out its probabilities had never tackled the subject of village fighting. I could have kicked myself again and again for this lack of foresight, but it never occurred to me that our infantry commanders would thrust tanks into such places.” Even with some of these problems, Cambrai is still seen as one of the great turning points of military history, it was on that field that day that the tank showed its true strength when given the opportunity for success, and it would be from this root that the next century of warfare, even until today 99 years later, where tanks would be the kings of the battlefield.

Even before the success at Cambrai the next revision of British tanks were already being designed, which would eventually become known as the Mark V. These tanks were designed to be ready and available for the expected 1918 summer offensives, and while their were initially big plans for big changes, the designers eventually were forced to settle for just keeping most of the design with small improvements. The most important of these were more reliability and heavier armor to keep up with the arms race between British armor and German anti-tank weapons. The initial run of the Mark V was just 400, although this would be increased later on, even though some of the performance gains would not meet the initial design goals. The first deliveries would reach France in Feberuary 1918, in plenty of time to play their role in the last offensives of the war. On the German side, while they would never put the same emphasis on tank design and production, they did manage to field one design, the A7V. This had been designed by the Daimler corporation and would make its battlefield debut in 1918. The design was a result of the admission of the German leaders that maybe armored fighting vehicles did have a future in the army and the result was a 40 ton behemoth with a crew of 16 and 6 machines guns to go along with a 57mm gun. This huge machine was powered by 2 100 horsepower engines which actually gave it a better power to weight ratio than its British counterparts and also gave it a top speed of a blistering 8 miles per hour. It had 30 mm of armor, which meant that it would withstand even a direct hit from the smaller British artillery guns. It was an impressive machine, no doubt about it, but it was only impressive on the right battlefield. Its tracks were small when compared to the British tanks and it was had absymal offroad performance, and just forget about trying to get it to cross a trench. The biggest problem would always be the number that the Germans could produce. The army initially wanted 100 of them, but that number would never be reached, with only 20 being built. These massive machines, and the material required to build them, was simply too much to ask of the German war machine that was already at maximum capacity trying to create all of the other things needed for the war.

The battles of 1918, especially after the German spring offensives, were a time for the tanks of the allied armies to shine. By this point they were integral pieces of the British and French armies, and soon the American army as well. Almost 2000 would take part in the fighting of the last 100 days of the war. Back in London continual improvements were made to production capacity and effiecieny even though most of this would not make a noticeable effect because the war would be over too soon. Haig would give a lot of credit to the tanks and their crews for the successes at the end of the war “Since the opening of our offensive on August 8, tanks have been employed on every battlefield, and the importance of the part played by them in breaking up the resistance of the German infantry can scarcely be exaggerated. The whole scheme of the attack of August 8 was dependent upon tanks, and ever since that date on numberless occasions the success of our infantry has been powerfully assisted or confirmed by their timely arrival. So great has been the effect produced upon the German infantry by the appearance of British tanks that in more than one instance, when for various reasons real tanks were not available in sufficient numbers, valuable results have been obtained by the use of dummy tanks painted on frames of wood and canvas.” The tanks, after years of design and improvements, had finally found their place in the war, just as it was ending. The future of the Tank Corps in the British Army was long in flux after the war, until it was finally constituted as a separate arm of the army in 1923, but it would rest on its laurels during the inter war period. Due to budget cutting and a lack of innovation over the next 20 years after 1918, the British army would enter the battlefields of the next war completely unprepared for the armored warfare that faced them. On the other side, the defeated German army had taken all of the lessons of the British innovators and their tanks during the first world war and created an entirely new fighting style based around new and improved tanks. But their story, and the results of their use, is a story for another day.