Iron Fortresses Iron Fortresses:
British & German Tanks Of World War One
with Dr. Michael L. McSwiney

The First World War was, more than anything, characterised by the grim reality of advanced military technology coupled with outdated military tactics. Open ground infantry engagements which had characterised so many previous European conflicts were obsolete in 1914 because of the rapid advances in integrated defensive systems. Barbed wire was cheap, easy to erect in multiple layers, and created a formidable barrier for advancing infantry. When combined with trench systems, reliable machine-guns, and modern artillery, infantry attacking in the open suffered horrific casualties. The end result was that neither side could mount an effective offensive creating a prolonged stalemate on the Western Front through 1917.

New weapons and tactics would therefore be required to achieve any sort of breakthrough. While senior commanders on both sides of the conflict failed to predict that the Great War would bog down into static trench warfare, there were some visionaries that recognised the danger and began work on solutions.
Great War
The Great War of 1914-18 was global in its reach. Yet this global conflict would be decided by the mighty clashes upon the battlefields of Europe.

Learn more about Great War here...
Great War
Enter the Royal Navy
Swinton was unable to obtain army backing for the project as their early tests with a caterpillar-equipped Holt tractor were unsatisfactory. However, a certain member of the Committee of Imperial Defence, saw potential in the idea. Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, and he was determined to move forward with the idea, even if it meant exceeding his authority.

British efforts to develop an effective armoured vehicle took time because of the army’s disinterest and major British industrial players not wanting to get involved.

Despite these handicaps, in 1915, the Landships Committee, as it became to be known, developed a set of requirements which called for trench-crossing ability, speed, basic armour, and its minimum armament. The committee also gave these new vehicles a codename: ‘tanks’, pretending to be developing a self-propelled water tank in order to camouflage the role the vehicle was intended to play.

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First Prototypes
‘Little Willie’ was the first British vehicle developed incorporating caterpillar tracks and a large box superstructure. Unfortunately the commercial tracks used were not up to the task, and a new track system
was developed.

The next design, known as ‘Big Willie’ or ‘Mother’, was developed by Lieutenant Walter Gordon Wilson and incorporated the rhomboidal shape characteristic of many British tanks of World War I. Trials on the new vehicle were completed by 2 February 1916, and by 12 February an order for 100 vehicles (later expanded to 150) was placed.

The Tank Goes to War
Reaching action in mid-September 1916, early results with the Mark I were promising, especially when the tanks were used in groups. Several shortcomings were evident in the Mark I, so an improved version, the Mark IV, was developed.

One of the key improvements was an increase in armour thickness to provide proof against German armour-piercing bullets. The naval six pounders used on the Mark I were also replaced with a shorter six pounder as the longer guns tended to bury their muzzles in mud and the barrels bent more easily than army equivalents.

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The Mark IV
Improvements were also made to the armour and armament. The Mark IV tank incorporated several automotive and structural improvements. One of the key characteristics of the British rhomboidal tanks was the primary armament being carried in external sponsons on both sides of the tank.

In previous marks, these sponsons were fixed and had to be removed to transport the vehicle by rail. Given that each sponson weighed over a ton, removal and reattachment were arduous tasks. The Mark IV’s sponsons were, however, retractable saving a great deal of time.

To ensure the vehicle wouldn’t stall at steep angles of attack, the gravity fuel feed of the Mark I was replaced with a vacuum system. The final drive was also enclosed based on experience with the Mark I.
Mark IV Male
Mark IV Female
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Learn more about the Mark IV Male here...
Learn more about the Mark IV Female here...
Its six-cylinder Diamler engine provided 105hp giving the 28-ton vehicle a top speed of about 4mph. The vehicle required a very large crew of eight to man the various armaments and control the vehicle. Simply steering the vehicle required the coordinated effort of four crewmen: the driver, two gearsmen, and the commander. The driver controlled the primary gearbox, the gearsmen controlled the high/low gear ratios separately on each track, and the commander controlled the brakes. Reverse gear was controlled by the driver, but the gear ratio was set fairly high resulting in poor reverse performance for the vehicle, making it difficult for the Mark IV to un-ditch itself.

The Mark IV was produced in two major variants, 420 ‘male’ tanks which carried two six pounder guns and three Lewis .303 machine guns, and 595 ‘female’ tanks, in which the six-pounder guns were replaced with two additional Lewis machine guns.

Later in the war, as a result of combat experience in tank versus tank combat, some Mark IV female tanks had one of their machine gun sponsons replaced with a six-pounder sponson creating a Mark IV ‘hermaphrodite’.

In addition to the combat tanks, over 200 tank tenders with boosted engines were built to carry tank supplies. These tenders had square mild steel sponsons which easily distinguished them from the combat tanks.

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Tanks had been used with mixed success through 1917 and the development of effective armoured tactics had been slow to develop. It was not until the Battle of Cambrai, in late November 1917, that the higher echelons of the British command were convinced of the utility of this new weapon.

Though not the first use of combined arms, Cambrai was one of the more effective employments of armour in conjunction with infantry and artillery allowing the Allied armies to advance more than five miles. The advance included over 400 British tanks, largely Mark IVs. Unfortunately little in the way of reserves was available to secure the captured ground and a German counteroffensive quickly retook the lost ground. The success of the initial advance, however, provided the political impetus needed for continued support of the armoured forces.

The Whippet
While the Mark I and later the Mark IV tanks were excellent infantry support weapons, and could even create a substantial breach in an enemy line when used in numbers, they lacked the speed to exploit that gap. In late 1916, William Tritton proposed a faster vehicle to the Landships Committee which would be capable of filling this role on the battlefield.

The new vehicle, called the Medium Mark A or ‘Whippet’, was a radical departure from the heavier rhomboidal tanks. The caterpillar tracks, derived from the Little Willie prototype, were more conventional side-slung units as opposed to the all-around tracks of the Mark IV.

Though originally envisioned with a rotating turret, the production model had an armoured housing for three to four .303 Hotchkiss machine guns, which could be relocated between four gun ports. Approved in June 1917, roughly 200 vehicles were produced starting in October 1917.

Unlike the large crew of the Mark IV, the Whippet managed with a standard crew of three, a commander, driver, and gunner. Given the gunner was responsible for manning both two machine guns (which could point forward, left, right, and rear), sometimes a second gunner was squeezed in.

As its primary role was to get these guns into the enemy rear as quickly as possible, the Whippet was designed with two 45hp engines-one powering each track. This gave the Whippet a top speed of 8.3mph, far faster than its heavier cousins.

The Whippet reached the battlefield during the British Army’s low ebb following crippling 1918 losses in Flanders. Their first action was to cover the retreat of British infantry during the German Spring Offensive. The machine-gun armament of the Whippet proved devastating to infantry caught in the open of No-man’s land, with seven Whippets effectively halting two German infantry battalions at an engagement near Cachy and Villers-Brettoneux.

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Germany’s Tank
The Germans began exploring the possibility of developing their own armoured vehicles soon after the first encounter with British tanks in September 1916. However, the process was slow and clearly had lower priority than the British and French efforts.

The A7V committee oversaw development of a German-designed tank, and by the end of October 1916 they had developed the specifications for the tank. The initial design and plans were completed by December 1916, but were revised in February 1917 to incorporate the updated specification of 30mm of frontal armour plate.

The resulting A7V tank was a 24’ by 10’ (7.3m x 3m) box with two track units slung beneath the fighting compartment. Armour thickness was 30mm on the front, 15mm on the sides, and 20mm on the rear. Armament consisted of one 5.7cm Maxim-Nordenfelt gun facing front and a total of six Maxim machine guns arrayed around the sides and rear.

Two 100hp four-cylinder engines powered the tank giving the vehicle a reasonable power to weight ratio for the time. The caterpillar track system of the A7V also had one key advantage over its Allied contemporaries-the A7V utilized a spring loaded suspension system rather than the crude un-sprung systems found on Allied tanks. This gave the A7V a speed of roughly 8 mph on flat ground, making the German heavy tank roughly as quick as the British Whippet or nearly twice as fast as the Mark IV.
Mark A Medium 'Whippet'
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Learn more about the Mark A Whippet here... Learn more about the A7V here...
As with all early tanks, the A7V had its share of problems. The engines tended to overheat and were difficult to start, the gearboxes were fragile, the tracks were weak, and even the armour plate had severe variations in strength and thickness. The A7V required a crew of 18 to operate properly, though 12 members of the crew were responsible for the six machine guns in two man teams. Trench-crossing ability and ground clearance were inferior to many of the Allied tanks resulting in the A7V frequently bogging down in soft terrain.

Production of the A7V tanks was painfully slow. Although the Germans placed an order for 100 vehicles, the first vehicle was not delivered until 1 October 1917. By the end of the war only 20 were produced requiring the Germans to rely on captured British and French tanks for much of their armoured strength.

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A7V in Combat
The A7V first saw combat on 21 March 1918 where 1. Abteilung (or ATD 1) stopped a British advance with three A7V.

Perhaps the most famous engagement involving the A7V was on 24 April 1918 at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Three British Mark IV tanks (one male and two female) engaged a total of three German A7V tanks in history’s first tank versus tank engagement. The A7V ‘Nixe’ (mermaid) engaged the Mark IV female tanks and heavily damaged them with its 57mm gun. As their machine guns were ineffective against the German tanks’ armour, the female tanks limped away.

The remaining Male tank (interestingly Number 1 tank of Number 1 section of A Company of the British 1st Battalion) opened fire on the German behemoth with its six pounders disabling it. With its crew in retreat, the male was joined by several Whippet tanks and engaged the supporting German infantry and the two A7V.

In the face of these superior numbers, the A7V withdrew to the safety of their lines. They returned once German artillery disabled the male. The A7Vs engaged the Whippets and destroyed a couple before the British tanks quit the field. All of the tanks were later recovered by their respective sides.

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Securing A Legacy
Despite their numerous mechanical and design shortcomings, the tanks of World War I proved a valuable asset in breaking the trench stalemate which had dominated warfare on the Western Front for years. It is interesting to note that while the A7V and Mark IV tank were rendered quickly technologically obsolete shortly after the war, the Whippet soldiered for decades in the armed forces of other nations. Some were in use by the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria in the early 1930s.

While the early tanks were not decisive on their own, the tank itself had proved itself on the field of battle as an indispensable component of modern combined arms warfare.

~ Michael.

Last Updated On Friday, August 15, 2014 by Blake at Battlefront