British Tank Development.

Discussion in 'Weapons, Technology & Equipment' started by von Poop, Feb 21, 2022.

  1. JeremyC

    JeremyC Active Member

    Don't forget that when Pope wrote this, the only British tanks he'd seen in action were Matildas (A11 and A12 varieties) and Vickers Light Tanks.

    His reference earlier in that letter to 1st Army Tank Brigade "marching and counter-marching 300 miles to fight one action" points out the BIG problem with infantry tanks - design and manufacture a vehicle with a top speed of 8 mph to accompany infantry at the walk, and the result is a very slow vehicle that simply wears itself out getting anywhere - however thick its armour may be when it finally gets to fight. THAT is the thinking behind the "We want the highest road speed compatible with the above" comment.

    Vyvyan Pope was one of the first British commanders to see the flaws inherent in the RTC dogmas of the 20s and 30s - and it is a pity that he was killed before he was able to put his ideas into action.
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  2. Don Juan

    Don Juan Well-Known Member

    Not sure about this, because the early Christie-type Cruisers had no difficulty in wearing themselves out over relatively short distances as well. One of the mistakes the 1st Army Tank Brigade made prior to Arras was not tying the A12's down to the same road speed as the A11's. The A12's therefore arrived at Arras earlier but in a worse state of repair, which was a bit of a schoolboy error really. The A11 seems to have been a pretty durable and reliable tank as far as I can tell. It's also notable that during Rommel's first offensive in Libya in April 1941 his tanks travelled as slowly as they possibly could on the coastal road to Cyrenaica in order to preserve their life mileage, so unless you have durability built in the premium will always be on preserving mileage life over reaching a destination quickly.

    The ultimate problem was of course that the pre-war Army had not been thinking in any serious way about durability, and had not specified a minimum life mileage for any of their tanks during development. Once you've got a 3000 mile service life then you can think about moving your tank formations around at a higher pace.
  3. Andreas

    Andreas Working on two books

    It's interesting that commanders were happy to hand him the first armoured corps ever for the biggest armoured operation the British Army ever set up until that point.

    It's also revealing that when he died they picked Norrie to replace him, showing just how shallow the talent pool was.

    All the best

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  4. JeremyC

    JeremyC Active Member

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  5. Don Juan

    Don Juan Well-Known Member

    I think there was also a failure to appreciate the sheer SCALE of the mechanised forces they would be commanding, and the need for an enormous number of reserve vehicles, spares, workshops, tank transporters, skilled personnel etc. IIRC around mid-1941 the RAOC were something short of 20,000 vehicle mechanics (details here, but I can't be arsed to look it up)..

    The RAC was akin to the RAF in terms of its technical needs, and like the RAF it eventually needed a large infusion of American equipment in order to function as required. I think this would have had to have happened even if British tank designs had been brilliant.
  6. BFBSM

    BFBSM Very Senior Member

    I have just completed reading J P Harris’ PhD thesis from 1983, written at King’s College London and available from their Research Portal. The theses abstract reads:

    It is an interesting read in that it has exposed me, further, to the idea that the lack of Tank Development in the inter-war period was due more to the political activities of Chamberlain and his belief in the need for air defence than anything else. It has also heightened my knowledge of Liddell Hart’s apparent manipulation of the history of the period, especially when it comes to his attitude towards various C.I.G.s during the inter-war period. Harris writes:

    Harris seems to also place an amount of the lack of tank development at the door of Liddell Hart, due to the latter’s negative attitude the establishment of a Continental Field Force.

    I hope to read more on this and appreciate further reading suggestions.
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  7. Don Juan

    Don Juan Well-Known Member

    One thing that goes unmentioned in this debate is that during the interwar period the British were developing barely ANY weapons for the Army whatsoever, let alone tanks. When Harold Brown took over Hugh Elles' duties as MGO in 1937 he had to develop a whole range of field weapons as quickly as possible, so he barely had time for tanks. Bear in mind that in 1936 the 25 pounder, 3.7" Anti-Aircraft gun, 4.5" Anti-Aircraft gun, 4.5" Medium gun, 5.5" Medium gun and the Bren gun did not exist. Even for weapons that did exist, such at the 2 pounder Anti-Tank gun and the Vickers MG, there wasn't the production capacity to cope with a major war.

    So tanks were far from an oddity in this respect.
  8. JeremyC

    JeremyC Active Member

    In that case (if you haven't read it already), can I thoroughly recommend J.P. Harris's "Men, Ideas and Tanks: British military thought and armoured forces, 1903-39" Manchester University Press, UK, 1995. Written by Harris when he was a Senior Lecturer at the War Studies Department of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, it is a development of the ideas set out in his PhD thesis, but with the benefit of 12 more years writing, lecturing, and research. I enjoyed every minute of reading it and am going to have to buy another copy soon as my original is falling apart from constant reference.

    Speaking of buying, it went through a period of being Out-Of-Print and therefore unreachably expensive, but, luckily for us, Manchester University Press had the good sense to issue a reprint in 2015 so prices have since come down and copies are easily available again. (Bit of a bugger for me, having bought when prices were high, but there you go - it was worth it . . .)

    Harris has also written (in 2008, while still at Sandhurst) an article for the Journal of Strategic Studies entitled "British Armour and rearmament in the 1930s" which is available free on-line so I presume I am allowed to attach a PDF copy here:

    Spoiler alert! if you are still a Liddell Hart (and Fuller) fan, you may disagree with Harris's ideas . . . My favourite line, summing-up one of Harris's particular lines of attack, is:

    "The myth that the Germans succeeded because they read and understood Liddell Hart and the British General Staff did not has long been a mangled corpse and it deserves a decent burial."

    Attached Files:

  9. JeremyC

    JeremyC Active Member

    Now hang on a minute! The Artillery (and/or the Board of Ordnance) reviewed artillery requirements at the end of WW1 and had already identified various lines of development - gun/howitzers to replace separate field guns and howitzer equipments, the need for gun tractors rather than horse teams, etc. The wartime "expedient" guns (4.7s, the 6- and 8-inch guns and howitzers, the massive railway guns, etc.) were declared obsolete and (mostly) scrapped, as were the 13-pounder and early marks of the 18-pounder, the 60-pounder, the 6-inch howitzer, etc. So the Artillery were left with large stocks of WW1-surplus guns, as many of which as possible were of the latest Mark of each type that was retained in service, thus incorporating the modifications which had been found necessary to increase range and firepower during WW1 (generally, a better carriage, made possible by the readiness to accept tractor drawn rather than horse-drawn equipments). However, that did not mean that development work stopped: the 25-pounder gun/howitzer project dates from the early 20s, as does the project that became the 5.5/4.5 inch gun. However, in the face of severe budgetary restrictions and the presence of said large stocks of WW1-surplus (but still first-line) weapons, development projects stopped short of production and progress was consequently slow.

    The same goes for the infantry's rifle and light machine gun. The Board of Ordnance's Small Arms Committee recognised the need for a new battle rifle to replace the SMLE, both to better reflect the actual needs of modern warfare and to be cheaper and easier to manufacture, and the need for a light machine-gun to replace the Lewis, which would be lighter, easier and cheaper to manufacture, and less finicky under battle conditions. Both these projects started in the early 20s but did not get very far in view of the same severe budgetary restrictions and the same presence of large stocks of WW1-surplus (but still first-line) weapons that confronted the Artillery. Of course while the LMG project ended up with the superb Bren gun, the Army never did get the rifle it wanted - the best it got was the No. 4, an easier-to-manufacture SMLE which didn't even go into production until 1941!

    As to AA guns, both the 3.7-inch and 4.5-inch gun projects date from the mid-20s, but neither progressed very fast in the face of the total lack of a hostile air force that would require such weapons to be developed. It was only the public announcement of the existence of the Luftwaffe in 1935 and the Chamberlain government's identification of the air defence of the UK as top priority that gave those the green light. Once they did get the go-ahead, however, progress to production was very rapid (for completely new weapons systems).

    So a lot of work was being done by the respective branches of the Army throughout the interwar period to learn the lessons of WW1 and to introduce new equipment to reflect the results (and neither of us have yet mentioned the work being done by the RASC and RAOC to develop vehicles with cross-country ability). It was only the extreme tightness of the Treasury (and the consequences of Winston's Ten-Year Rule) that produced the situation that confronted Elles & Brown in 1937.

    However the real difference that made tanks different/an oddity in this respect was that everyone else (Artillery, Infantry, RASC/RAOC) knew EXACTLY what they wanted and had the skills and contacts to get those designs through to production as soon as the money was forthcoming - the RTC couldn't even make its mind up as to what it wanted in the first place.
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  10. Don Juan

    Don Juan Well-Known Member

    I'm going by Sir Harold Brown's own unpublished memoir here (his "Reminiscences"). Whatever prior design or development work was done, he still inherited a mess as far as guns were concerned, and he still had to concentrate on those as a priority.

    Here's an extract:

  11. Don Juan

    Don Juan Well-Known Member

    Problems with the 25 pounder:

    HB 25 pounder.jpg

    Problems with the 5.5" Medium Gun:

    HB 5 dot.5.jpeg

    The effort that was going into setting up gun factories, carriage factories, shell production facilities, shell filling facilities etc. absolutely dwarfed the production expansion for tanks. I think the controversy over tanks tends to obscure the fact that the British only got their basic gun production up to speed by the skin of their teeth.
  12. Andreas

    Andreas Working on two books

    And you still see the failure of getting this right in late 1941 in the only active theatre where British land forces were facing the enemy in combat.

    8th Army Medium Artillery Stats 4 November 1941 (major update 19 June)

    Most of the medium equipment were refurbed 6" howitzers, with a smattering of 4.5" howitzers and captured mediums in Tobruk thrown in, and the main replacement wasn't the 4.5" or 5.5" gun, but another Great War veteran, the 155mm Schneider Modele C, modernised for motorised transport, and coming as lendlease from the US.

    All the best

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  13. JeremyC

    JeremyC Active Member

    Yes, well - he would say that, wouldn't he? :D

    But seriously - that must be an interesting document to read - pity it's unpublished!
    Chamberlain's government does get a bad press, but it is undeniable that they laid the groundwork for some of the success stories of the British war effort, amongst which were the Royal Ordnance Factories. As you say, the time, money and effort that was expended on those in the 30s dwarfed any expenditure on tanks.

    I've got a copy of William Hornby's "Factories and Plant", which I'm working through. It's from the library, but I can see I'm going to have to buy a copy . . .
  14. Don Juan

    Don Juan Well-Known Member

    As an aside, I should point out that the allegation of a "lack of destructive power" for the 4.5" Medium Gun is due to a misunderstanding of its role. The relatively small explosive shell filling was deliberate, so as to produce the biggest chunks of shrapnel possible to damage enemy equipment in line with its primary role as a counter-battery weapon. This was of course a disadvantage when it was used against personnel.
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  15. Nick the Noodle

    Nick the Noodle Active Member

    I've just bought that, but is, as yet, unread. Only £11.12.,stripbooks,239&sr=1-1
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  16. TTH

    TTH Senior Member

    "Chamberlain's government does get a bad press, but it is undeniable that they laid the groundwork for some of the success stories of the British war effort."

    Well, it should get a bad press. Sure, the groundwork for long-term success was laid in some cases. Speaking very generally, Britain seems to have done a better job of planning for a long war than the Germans did. Some key weapons did get into service (just) in time to play vital parts in the early years of the war (Hurricane, Spitfire, radar). But as my sister says, you don't get extra credit for doing what you should do anyway. Over on another thread I have been looking at non-standard British weaponry, and the sheer amount of such stuff which had to be used in the first half of the war because standard types were not yet available is remarkable. And no, it didn't all go to the Home Guard either. Andreas has diligently catalogued the large number of obsolescent and captured guns which 8th Army was forced to use as late as Operation CRUSADER. And 8th Army, mind, was then the only complete British field army in action against the enemy. At one point in 1941 there was a serious plan for the US to provide a near-complete set of equipment (some artillery, plus mortars, small arms, etc.) for ten British divisions because British factories could not yet furnish the items needed. Even before Dunkirk and the loss of the BEF's armament the government was looking into purchasing odd lots of Mauser rifles and SMGs from the gun trade in Belgium and Holland. In 1940 the British Purchasing Commission was snapping up things like .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolvers and 56th Heavy Regiment was shouting 'bang' in unison because they didn't have shells or charges to practice with. Tank production was so slow in the early months of the war that serious consideration was given to issuing Hotchkiss H39s to the RAC. But never mind tanks and advanced AA weapons, basic weaponry was neglected just as badly.
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  17. JeremyC

    JeremyC Active Member

    On the one hand, I quite agree; especially in 1938-9, when some of the decisions made were verging on fantasy - wishful thinking at its most extreme.

    But, on the other hand, given the state of the British economy in the 30s and the widespread anti-war feeling amongst the British electorate, what could they have done to make things better?
  18. Listy

    Listy Well-Known Member

    If you've got the time, then this might be an interesting read:
    HyperWar: British War Production (UK Civil Series)

    The Dunkirk chapter explains why it happened. Tanks (and likely guns) were not a priority, where as air defence was. Page 186 of that chapter does have an interesting table, showing an increase in tank production, and at a same time a shift away from light tanks.
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  19. Don Juan

    Don Juan Well-Known Member

    It could of course be argued that rearmament would have given the British economy exactly the boost it needed. Also, ignoring the feelings of the British electorate has been the norm of governments throughout my lifetime. I personally don't blame Chamberlain all that much because like the overwhelming majority of politicians he was simply a victim of the groupthink of his time, that groupthink being that a European war could be avoided, and avoiding such a war was the best way of preserving the Empire. In hindsight this was obviously motivated reasoning, but it isn't really surprising that most people went along with it.
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  20. TTH

    TTH Senior Member

    It has come to my attention that there was serious British interest pre-war in Czech tank designs. Nicholas Straussler, ever full of new ideas, entered into negotiation in 1938 with Skoda to get a license for the 35-T. The plan or hope was to build 100 of these in Czechoslovakia and another 100 in the UK. This comes second-hand via a Czech book on Czech tanks by a couple of Czechs whose names I don't recall. The article on the subject (, I think) didn't say whether these tanks would have been for the British Army or for export sale. Anyway, British (or Straussler's?) interest in the 35-T waned when it became clear that the Czech Praga company had a newer and better design, the 38-T(TNH). One example of the 38-T went to Lulworth where it was tested and rejected for what now seem relatively minor reasons. Anyway, it's interesting to speculate about what would or could have happened if these Czech tanks had been taken into service or built in the UK. The 35-T wasn't a great design. The side armor was thin, the armor was riveted, speed was on the low side for a cruiser tank, and there were problems with reliability. Still, despite its flaws I think the 35-T compares fairly well with early British cruisers, which of course had similar problems of their own, and if action had been take quickly enough the 35-T might have been available in quantity in time for 1940. The 38-T, of course, was a better tank and certainly more reliable than the 35-T or the A13 for that matter.
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