THE INVENTION OF THE TANK
In 1900 Major General Sir Ernest Swinton was serving with the British Forces in the Boer War. Swinton, a Royal Engineer Officer visualised the requirement for an armoured fighting vehicle to defeat the destructive power of the machine gun. The tank, a revolutionary new weapon system, born of Swinton's vision, was to break the stalemate of trench warfare and the dominance of the machine gun of the battlefields of Flanders 16 years later.
EVOLUTION OF THE TANK
No one individual was responsible for the development of the tank and it's design can be drawn back to the 18th century. Rather, a number of gradual technological developments brought the development of the tank as we know it closer until its eventual form was unveiled out of necessity by the British Army - or rather, Navy, since its initial deployment in WW1 was, perhaps surprisingly, overseen by the Royal Navy.
The caterpillar track upon which the tank travelled, was designed in its crudest form in 1770 by Richard Edgeworth. The Crimean War saw a relatively small number of steam powered tractors developed using the caterpillar track to manoeuvre around the battlefield's muddy terrain.
With the development of the internal combustion engine in 1885 by Nikolaus August Otto, a tractor was constructed in the U.S. by the Holt Company which utilised Edgeworth's caterpillar tracks, again to facilitate movement over muddy terrain. It was even suggested at the time that Holt's machine be adapted for military purposes, but the suggestion was never acted upon.
In 1899 Frederick Simms designed what he termed a 'motor-war car'. It boasted an engine by Daimler, a bullet-proof casing and was armed with two revolving machine guns developed by Hiram Maxim. Offered to the British Army it was - as had the machine gun before it - dismissed as of little use. Lord Kitchener, later Britain's War Minister, regarded it damningly as "a pretty mechanical toy".
Swinton however, remained enthusiastic about what they believed to be the enormous potential of the tank, not least in breaking through enemy trenches. He organised a demonstration of the Killen-Strait tractor to politicians in June 1915 - almost a year after WW1 was underway.
In attendance at the demonstration were two future British Prime Ministers; David Lloyd George and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. During the demonstration the tractor successfully demonstrated it's ability to cut through a barbed wire entanglement. Both Churchill and Lloyd George came away impressed by it's potential.
It was Churchill who, on Swinton's urging, sponsored the establishment of the Landships Committee to investigate the potential of constructing what amounted to a new military weapon. The name of the Committee was derived from the fact that, at least initially, the tank was seen an extension of sea-going warships - hence, a landship. Together the Landships Committee and the Inventions Committee, working with Colonel Swinton, agreed to go ahead with the design of the new weapon, which at that time remained nameless.
William Tritton of William Foster & Co., based in Lincoln was commissioned to produce the first landship in secrecy. Its codename, given because the shape of the shell resembled water carriers, was 'tank'; the name assigned in December 1915, stuck.
Swinton laid down certain key criteria that he argued must be part of the finished design. The tank must boast a minimum speed of 4 miles per hour, be able to climb a 5 foot high obstacle, successfully span a 5 foot trench, and - critically - be immune to the effects of small-arms fire. Furthermore, it should possess 2 machine guns, have a range of 20 miles and be maintained by a crew of 10 men.
This first tank was given the nickname 'Little Willie' (soon followed by 'Big Willie') and, as with its predecessors, possessed a Daimler engine. Weighing some 14 tons and bearing 12 feet long track frames, the tank could carry three people in cramped conditions. In the event the top speed was 3 miles per hour on level ground, 2 miles per hour on rough terrain.
THE ROYAL NAVY
The tank was in many ways merely an extension of the principle of the armoured car. Armoured cars were popular on the Western Front at the start WW1, since at that stage it was very much a war of movement. Their use only dwindled with the onset of static trench warfare, when their utility was questionable.
The Royal Navy's role in tank development may seem incongruous but was in fact merely an extension of the role they had played thus far in the use of armoured cars. The Navy had deployed Squadrons of armoured cars to protect Allied airstrips in Belgium against enemy attack.
The first combat tank was ready by January 1916 and was demonstrated to a high-powered audience. Convinced, Lloyd George - the Minister of Munitions - ordered production of the heavy Mark I model to begin (the lighter renowned 'Whippets' entered service the following year).
5 months after its combat demonstration to the British, in June 1916 the first production line tanks were ready, albeit too late for use at the start of that year's 'big push' - the Battle of the Somme, which began on the 1st July 1916. Initially the Royal Navy supplied the crews for the tank followed by members of the Machine Gun Corps.
The very first battle involving tanks took place on the Somme. About 30 British Mark 1 tanks attacked German positions between the villages of Flers and Courcelette, on the 15th September 1916. The arrival of the tanks on the battlefield signalled the end of trench warfare, which had suffocated both sides in the 1914-18 conflict.
During this action the Press seized on a report from an aircraft crew, which said that "a tank is walking down the main street of Flers with the British Army cheering behind it." This was D Company, who later became 4RTR.
The first battle between 2 opposing tanks took place near the village of Cachy on the 24th April 1918. The German A7V tank Nixe (Lt Biltz), engaged 3 British Mark IV tanks, and damaged 2, but was knocked out by the third, commanded by 2/Lt Frank Mitchell.
Conditions for the tank crews were also far from ideal. The heat generated inside the tank was tremendous and fumes often nearly choked the men inside. Nevertheless the first tank operators proved their mettle by operating under what amounted to appalling conditions.
Tanks were even deployed during the notorious, almost swampy, conditions of the Third Battle of Ypres (more commonly known as 'Passchendale'). They promptly sank in the mire and were entirely without benefit. In what as many regard as the first truly successful demonstration of the potential of the tank, the entire British Tank Corps (consisting of 476 tanks) saw action at the Battle of Cambrai on 20th November 1917.
The story of The Royal Tank Regiment is one of struggle, triumph and achievement. Unlike some Regiments within the Royal Armoured Corps it's origins do not date back hundreds of years but only back to WW1. However, few can doubt that in a relatively short time a lot has happened with the the stalemate of trench warfare overcome, the restoration of mobility and the establishment of the tank and mechanised forces, as a dominant factor in battle. It's soldiers not only proving their mettle in the last Gulf War but also showing their adaptability in the ongoing fight against global terrorism.