Saturday, December 24, 2016

Tanks during and after the First World War

Although technology governed what could be done, its scope was sufficiently wide to provide a range of options in the design of tanks. In consequence, tanks came to vary considerably as these options were exercised to suit different ideas about their role or mode of employment.

The early ideas on the employment of British tanks were mainly those of Swinton who was made commander of the first British tank unit and who, in 1916, defined the tank as "primarily a machine gun destroyer, which can be employed as an auxiliary to an infantry assault". In other words, he regarded tanks as specialised vehicles which would help the infantry assault enemy trenches.

British tanks were, in fact, originally used as such. They were first sent into action, on the Somme, on 15 September 1916, when only 49 could be made available. Their first employment ignored Swinton's advice that they should be used by surprise and not in driblets and it met with relatively little success. It was only a year later, on 20 November 1917, at Cambrai, where 476 tanks were concentrated on a narrow front and used in a surprise assault over suitable ground, that tanks achieved a spectacular success in the role for which they were intended.

However, the battle of Cambrai also demonstrated that the capabilities of the original tanks did not extend beyond the short-range assault for which they were designed. To advance beyond it there had to be another, faster type of tank with a longer operating range which could exploit any breakthrough achieved by the other tanks. A lighter and faster tank, which became known as the Medium A, had already been designed and the first production model of it was completed shortly before the battle of Cambrai. But it was not used on any scale until the second major tank assault, at Amiens in August 1918, for which a total of about 600 tanks of all types was assembled.

Thus, by the end of the First World War in November 1918 the British Army had two categories of tanks. One consisted of the direct developments of the original tank, which culminated in the Anglo-American Mark VIII heavy tank. The other consisted of the Medium A and its successors. The role of the latter was about to be extended considerably as a result of experiments carried out by the engineering staff of the Tank Corps which showed that a tank could be built to have a maximum speed of 30 km/h, or more than twice the speed of any tank built until then. This inspired Colonel J F C Fuller, who was the chief of staff of the Tank Corps, to produce "Plan 1919", which proposed the use of fast medium tanks for raids against objectives well behind enemy lines. The raids were to be carried out by tanks called Medium D, which still had to be designed but work on which was started in 1918 by Lt. Colonel P Johnson. However, by the time a prototype of it was built the war was over.

Even before the infantry took over the French tank units, or the artillerie d'assaut as they were called until then, Colonel J E Estienne, who had become their commander, was already forecasting a very different way of employing tanks. Thus, in a study written in 1919, he foresaw the light accompanying tanks of the Renault FT type becoming after a time the organic equipment of the machine gun or heavy weapons companies of the infantry. They would then be succeeded by battle tanks which would be capable not only of destroying enemy machine guns but also enemy tanks. Companies of these tanks would replace infantry companies as the basic fighting units and future battles would be fought between tanks, whose armour and armament would need to be increased progressively. Other lighter and faster tanks might be useful for exploiting the success of the more powerful tanks, but Estienne very wisely commented that it would be a mistake to allow their construction to reduce the effectiveness or the number of the battle tanks, as the latter could never be too powerful or too numerous.

But Estienne's far-sighted views were ignored and, after several years of trying to improve the Renault FT, the French Army procured some more, albeit it more modern, infantry accompanying light tanks. The prime example of them was the Renault R-35, which became the most numerous French tank by 1940.

In the meantime more new ideas on the employment of tanks emerged in Britain and they led to its progress well beyond the confines of infantry support. To start with, in 1919, Fuller proposed that infantry battalions be reorganised to include a company of tanks. This foreshadowed the integrated tank-infantry battalions which were successfully created forty years later by the French and Swedish Armies but it could hardly be implemented at the time for lack of suitable tanks. Thus, the wartime British tanks were too clumsy to be incorporated within infantry battalions. A Light Infantry Tank was proposed but it still had to be designed and it was even faster than the Medium D, although Fuller considered that this did not make it incompatible with infantry marching on foot.

Fuller's proposal did not lead to any practical results but his writings and those of others promoted the formation, in 1927, of an Experimental Mechanized Force to explore some of the new ideas about a more mobile employment of tanks. The pursuit of these ideas was greatly helped, and to some extent inspired, by the Vickers Medium tanks with which the Royal Tank Corps was reequipped from 1923 onwards and which had a maximum speed of about 30 km/h - a speed considerably higher than that of all tanks used previously. In fact, a battalion of these tanks formed the core of the Experimental Mechanized Force. The latter also contained motorised infantry, artillery, reconnaissance and engineer units and thus constituted the first attempt at a self-contained force based on automotive vehicles. As such it provided some valuable experience but experiments with it led to two divergent lines of employment, neither of which made the most effective use of tanks.

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