Monday, 11 March 2013
World of Tanks History Section: British Tank Building
On July 28th, 1914, the cannonade of a new war rolled through Europe. Nobody thought that the conflict would be a global war of attrition. All participants assumed they could quickly crush their opponents in a few months of decisive offensives. New countries joined the fight, armies took colossal casualties, and Europe was crisscrossed with trenches from the north shores to the south. Offensives were ineffective. Tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of lives were given for mere kilometers. In order to break the stalemate, all participants developed new, deadlier weapons. Flamethrowers, poison gases, airplanes. The British invented the tank.
The first tanks went into battle on September 15th, 1916, at the river Somme. Armoured monsters broke through the German defenses, but the effect was only tactical, not strategic. Overall, tanks failed to play a decisive role in WWI. Two decades went by before the full potential of armoured vehicles was discovered. Over these years, not only the tanks themselves evolved, but their use in combat. Surprisingly, the British, pioneers of tank building, had problems with both these aspects.
As always, the biggest problem was the human factor. The British Ministry of Defense had many opponents to armoured warfare. D. Brown wrote that military commanders treated the tank corps with hatred and jealousy. Claims that tanks were a waste of budget were common.
The pro-tank camp wasn't running too smoothly either. There was no single opinion about what tanks should do on the battlefield. Two viewpoints were common. One was that the tanks should advance with infantry, cover it with armour, and help it fight enemy infantry. Other tanks, field guns, and bunkers were the responsibility of artillery. The second camp was of the opinion that tanks had to act like cavalry. They would break through to the rear of the enemy, strike at their communications, warehouses, attack infantry that is matching and incapable of effectively fighting back.
At the end, the British decided to sit on two chairs at once. Tanks were divided into infantry and cruiser types. The first were slow and well armoured. The second were fast and thinly armoured. The armament was more or less the same. Although it was originally proposed that infantry tanks should just have machine guns, they were eventually upgraded to AT guns. The caliber of these guns was limited, and neither cruiser nor infantry tanks were equipped with HE shells.
Let us closely examine the two British tank families at the beginning of WWII.
Infantry tanks, at the beginning, had no AT guns. An example of such a tank is the Matilda I, which was built starting in 1937. It was a clumsy, but well armoured tank. In 1940, when the British first crossed paths with the Germans, it turned out that German AT guns were ineffective against it. Sadly, the advantage in defense was completely nullified by its poor offensive capability.
In 1939, the Matilda II entered production as the heaviest British tank of the start of the war. Its 60 mm armour could only be penetrated by 88mm AA guns and 76 mm guns on Marder II tank destroyers. Unlike its first modification, the Matilda II carried a 2-pounder gun. For the beginning of the war, this was enough. However, by the middle of 1942, the Matilda's gun stopped being a significant threat. A larger gun was not possible due to the small turret ring.
The best infantry tank of the early war was the Valentine. This vehicle first saw combat in North Africa. The Valentines were produced until 1944, even though it was deemed obsolete by 1942. It was hindered by its low speed and weak gun. Unlike the Matilda, the Valentine could be fitted with a 57 mm (6 pounder) gun. The cramped turret fit two crewmen, which reduced the crew's effectiveness. Around half of all Valentines built were shipped to the USSR under Lend-Lease.
As for cruiser tanks, at the start of WWII they were far from perfect, and distinguished themselves with poor reliability. Cruiser tanks were based on Walter Christie's vehicles.
The first cruiser tank was the Vickers Mk I, produced in small numbers since 1934. They were practically not used in the war, even though several remained on active duty until 1941. Most tanks were used for training purposes.
Vickers Mk II and Mk II were a little better than the first model, but were weakly armoured and lightly armed. Still, there were many non-combat losses, credited to the poor reliability of these tanks.
The Vickers Mk IV was supposed to solve this situation. The armour was increased to 30 mm by welding armour plates on to the turret and weak spots. This gave the turret a strange 6 sided shape, which the Covenanter inherited. The suspension was also improved. The Mk IV was much more combat capable than its predecessor, but was still broke down unacceptably often.
In 1940-1941, Britain suffered heavy losses on all fronts. In France, North Africa, Greece, British tanks were inferior to their opponents. Sometimes this was due to technological superiority, sometimes due to incompetent commanders. Britain had to take drastic measures.
The Tank Committee was reshuffled in 1941, after British defeats against Germany's forces. The committee was joined to the Ministry of Defense, and given control of all enterprises that dealt with manufacturing tanks or developing tank doctrine. This was vitally important, since the current state of affairs rendered the British army incapable of properly completing the objectives of a modern war.
Based on the experiences of 1940-1942, the British concluded that their tanks were ineffective against almost all vehicles of the enemy, aside from very old ones, like the PzI. Light tanks were placed on scout duties only, and, even there, they were slowly replaced by armoured cars.
Infantry tank experience in Europe did not go as poorly. As an example, one can look at the battle of Arras on May 21st, 1940. Matilda I and II tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment attacked two regiments of the 7th tank division and a regiment of the SS "Death's Head" division. The Matilda's armour, 60-78 mm thick, could only be lightly dented by German 37 mm AT shells. The SS "retreated with signs of panic" or, in more colloquial terms, fled. The British were only stopped when the Germans calmed down and towed in 88 mm AA guns. Infantry tanks could be improved by heavier armour and better weapons.
Cruiser tanks had the most room for improvement. On one hand, the cruiser tanks that Britain had in its possession distinguished themselves with neither combat effectiveness, nor reliability. On the other hand, the army needed a proper universal tank that was capable of both accompanying infantry and completing independent objectives. Cruiser tanks were the obvious choice here, but something had to be done about their engines, with the service life of several hours and their flaky ventilation and suspension. Skipping forward a bit, the British only accomplished this by 1944.
Both cruiser and infantry tanks required improved weaponry. The main tank gun at the time was the 2 pounder (40 mm) gun. It was ineffective against tanks of the time and nearly worthless against infantry: HE shells were either absent, or of such poor quality that tankers discarded them for AP.
It was necessary to use a 57 mm (6 pound) gun. The British had a gun like this, and it was used on the Valentine since 1943. For a very long time, most British tanks were armed with the 57 mm gun that, while better than the 2 pounder, was still not powerful enough. A 75 mm gun was only adapted in 1944.
Despite their active participation in the war and a realistic view of a tank's requirements, the British created several very unfortunate vehicles. For example, the Covenanter. This Christie suspension cruiser tank was released with the 2 pounder gun, and was very unreliable. By the time its technical problems were ironed out, it was obsolete. Its heir, the Crusader, was considered to be very comfortable to drive and use, but was not loved by tankers. The reasons for this were the same: poor gun, thin armour, low reliability.
The Matilda was replaced by the Churchill, which will be the topic of another article. It was a very strange tank for its time. It was probably more suited for the battlefields of WWI. Like all infantry tanks, it was slow, and had a questionable weapon layout. The turret held a 2 pounder gun. The hull, a 76 mm howitzer. This was quickly seen as a poor choice, and the Churchill was modernized. The howitzer was removed, the main gun was replaced with a 57 mm, and later a 75 mm gun. There were also fire support tanks, with 95 mm howitzers. One of the Churchill's problems was its narrow hull. It was impossible to enlarge the turret ring, and the existing turret was not large enough for a bigger gun.
This problem was addressed by a new infantry tank, the Super Churchill, also known as the Black Prince. It was largely based on the Churchill tank, but with a wider hull. The larger turret managed to fit in a 17 pounder gun. By May of 1945, when 6 Black Princes were ready for testing, the vehicle's layout and armament were already obsolete. The tank never had a chance to see combat before all work on it stopped.
The Cromwell, on the other hand, was a breakthrough. Developed in 1941-1943, it was armed with a 57 mm or 75 mm gun, and, with the "Meteor" airplane engine, it was the fastest British tank at the time. The Cromwell was a decent tank, but by 1943, the Germans had Tigers and Panthers. The 75 mm gun was insufficient against them, and the small turret ring prevented a larger gun from being mounted.
A more powerful gun was mounted on the Cromwell's successor, the Comet. With a wider and longer turret, a 77 mm gun with a muzzle velocity of 787 m/s was installed. This was the most powerful cruiser tank of WWII. It was not as good as a Panther, but significantly better than the German PzIV, which remained Wehrmacht's most common tank.
A cruiser tank nicknamed "British Panther" was built after WWII. It was called the Centurion. It had an angled welded hull, a 17 or 20 pounder gun, and remained in use until 1970. Later versions of the tank (starting in the 1950s) were armed with the 105 mm rifled L7 gun. This tank served as a basis for the experimental FV4202, which, due to a redesigned hull shape (the driver was now lying down), was smaller, lighter, and more maneuverable. The tank had the same 105 mm gun. The FV4204 was not mass produced, since at that point, Main Battle Tanks were conceived. The British themselves, in 1945, agreed that the idea of splitting tanks into cruiser and infantry was a poor one.
The last heavy tanks of Britain were the Caernarvon and Conqueror. They were built as heavily armed tanks, meant to combat the tanks of the enemy. This narrow specialization, and a large amount of technical problems, led to only 180 of these tanks built in various modifications.
Caernarvon and Conqueror were meant to fight enemy tanks from large distances. Based on the Conqueror chassis, another heavy tank was being developed, the FV215b. At first, it was meant to have a 183 mm gun with a drum type autoloader, but the gun was incapable of rotation, and had to be installed without any kind of turret. One close call with an HE shell, and the crew was dead and the tank inoperable. At first, this was solved by welding a box on top of the tank. Later, a turret was built, but had to be placed in the rear of the hull. 120 mm and 130 mm weapons were tested as well. The tank was not mass produced.
To summarize, while the British were the first to put tanks on the battlefield, they did not stay in the lead for long. Perhaps, this was due to the United Kingdom's geographical location on an island, with a reduced priority given to land forces compared to ships and aviation. When the time came to fight on land, the British were incapable of catching up to Germany and the USSR, whose tanks were the main striking force.
Original article available here: part 1 and part 2.