Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Recommended: Churchill and the Tank

Mark IV Female (Armed with Machine Guns) Tank in a British Museum

By David Fletcher

In the first place the Commission desire to record their view that it was primarily due to the receptivity, courage and driving force of the Rt. Hon. Winston Spencer Churchill that the general idea of the use of such an instrument of warfare as the ‘Tank’ was converted into a practical shape. Mr. Winston Churchill has very properly taken the view that all his thought and time belonged to the State and that he was not entitled to make any claim for an award, even had he wished to do so. But it seems proper that the above view should be recorded by way of tribute to Mr. Winston Churchill.
—Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, 
in summing up claims in respect of “Invention of Tanks”

The Inspiration/Perspiration Ratio is well known where inventions are concerned, and it should be recognized that Churchill’s contribution falls directly into the former category—but even then it did not spring from nowhere. His duties to the Fleet and the Royal Naval Air Service notwithstanding, the First Lord of the Admiralty was always looking for an opportunity to gain a toehold in a war zone.

It came sooner than he thought when that piratical RNAS officer, Charles Rumney Samson (who in earlier times was one of those who taught Churchill to fly), took his squadron to Dunkirk in 1914. Within weeks, whenever the weather prevented flying, these men were tearing around Flanders in homemade armored cars, shooting up the German cavalry, and having the time of their lives. Grasping the opportunity, Churchill encouraged expansion of this armored car force with newly made vehicles from Britain, and before long anyone with a sense of adventure was anxious to join in, among them the legendary Bendor, the Duke of Westminster.

First Prototype, "Little Willie"

But it didn’t last and couldn’t last. Trenches appeared, often dug across the roads; barbed wire likewise. Shell fire began to turn the ground into a quagmire and the movement of armored cars was restricted. After all, even the best of them were no more than conventional cars with about four tons of armor bolted on, even if many were Rolls-Royces. Most were handed over to the Army while the men dispersed, some back to sea. The Duke took his armored cars to Egypt, but others, fired up with the potential of armored warfare on land, returned to London and thought up new ideas.

Among them was a chap named Tom Hetherington, who somehow managed to retain commissions in the Army and the Navy at the same time. He dreamed up the idea of a huge machine, something one might associate with H. G. Wells, which would roll into Germany on 40-foot-diameter wheels, wade across the Rhine, and bring the war to an end in weeks.

Hetherington and Churchill came together at a dinner, hosted by Westminster, and there is little doubt that the young officer’s impossible design reignited the First Lord’s interest. Churchill himself was, above all, a realist, who dealt best with what he could see and understand. Commodore Murray Sueter, Director of the Air Department at the Admiralty, remembers Churchill storming around his office saying, “We must crush the trenches, D.A.D. It is the only way; it must be done.”

Churchill’s first effort along these lines was abortive. Two municipal steam rollers were acquired, linked up side by side and then driven like mad at a trench parapet, only to get stuck in the soft mud and sit there, belching smoke, rollers spinning, going nowhere.

News Coverage from 1918

On a more practical level the First Lord ordained an Admiralty Landships Committee, which met (for the first time in the First Lord’s rooms at the Admiralty since he had the flu) under the chairmanship of Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt, Director of Naval Construction, in February 1915. This committee, and the driving force behind it, was Churchill’s greatest contribution to the evolution of the tank.

The Landships Committee’s first problem was to decide upon the respective merits of wheels or caterpillar tracks. Hetherington’s huge wheeled design was simply too big, and even a half-scale version, designed by William Foster and Company in Lincoln, was rejected at an early stage. That left tracks, but tracks, as a means of crossing rough ground, were hardly known in Britain and early prototypes mostly had to be imported from the USA [from the Holt Tractor Company of Stockton, CA]. Murray Sueter educated Churchill on the properties of tracks by inviting him down to Horse Guards to push a small tracked truck around. Soon the Landships Committee had experiments going on everywhere and Churchill attended one with Lloyd George, as the following article notes, at a testing ground near Wormwood Scrubs.

I Could Not Find a Photo of WSC with a WWI Tank, This Is from the Next War

Even so, Churchill was better with men than machines. and his last great contribution to this saga was to appoint a pushy young merchant banker, one Albert Stern, as secretary to D’Eyncourt’s Committee. Commissioned a lieutenant in the RNAS, Stern went at it like mad, with no respect for rank or station. Stern didn’t tread on toes—he lept on them and managed to make himself very unpopular, but he got things done. A prototype machine, first known as “Little Willie,” was running by the summer of 1915. Its successor—“Big Willie” or “Mother”—the true prototype of all British World War I tanks—was completed the following December and a matter of months later, production began. As Marcus Frost relates next, tanks went into action for the first time on 15 September 1916. In the circumstances, it was an amazing feat to imagine, invent, design, and produce a brand new weapons system in so short a time.

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  1. I was intrigued by the concept that tanks had gender. This article helps explain it all, including the hermaphrodite tanks...

  2. Where does "Father of the Tank" Swinton fit in with all this?