Who invented the tank? It’s a really easy question to ask and one would have thought it would be fairly simple to answer. But it isn’t, not for the British at least, because although one or two individuals are often given the majority of the credit, the reality is that no one person can be given the credit. Work to develop what would become the tank started in 1914 and there were a number of people involved who deserve some of the credit.
First up is Commodore Murray Sueter who was Director of the Air Division of the Admiralty.
The Royal Navy Air Service had used armed cars for reconnaissance purposes in Belgium in August 1914 but after a firefight in September they started to armour the cars using locally obtained boiler plate. Commodore Sueter oversaw the up-armouring of cars.
Cars were successful but the crew were exposed due to open nature of the cars. Sueter decided to develop some overhead protection and eventually he came up with the idea of a car with a revolving turret. But by late 1914 trench warfare had begun and so the scope to use armoured cars significantly reduced.
Next up is another Naval officer, Rear Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, who in 1914 was the general manager of Coventry Ordnance Works, a company that built 15 inch howitzers.
He proposed to Winston Churchill, then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, a road-borne 15 inch gun mounted on a team of tractors. Churchill asked about their ability to cross trenches and as a result Bacon produced a design for a caterpillar tractor. Churchill ordered Bacon to build a prototype but what was built was not a caterpillar machine but instead something that looked very much like a steamroller.
Sticking again with the Navy, another possible claimant to the title is Lt R F Macfie who had seen the Holt Tractor in use in the US before the war.
He joined the RNAS Armoured Car force in October 1914 and while there is evidence of him being a fan of caterpillar tracks, he doesn’t appear to have proposed their use on a fighting vehicle; he like Admiral Bacon saw tracks as a way of moving heavy guns around.
Next on our list of tank inventors are Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton, Capt Tulloch and Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hankey. Swinton was a Sapper, Tulloch ran the Chilworth Powder Company and Hankey was secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence.
Swinton had been on the staff of the Committee secretariat and was sent to France in 1914 as an official war correspondent. He was known for his fertile mind, having written 2 military studies after the Boer War, and having seen the war change from one of manoeuvre to a vast siege, he turned his mind to thinking about how the siege could be broken. He had in mind an armoured vehicle capable of destroying machine guns, of moving cross country and climbing earthworks. He too had heard about the Holt tractor via a mining engineer friend of his.
In October 1914 Swinton went to London to see Hankey and suggested the use of converted Holt tractors. They continued the discussion the following day in which Tulloch joined them. Tulloch was a gunnery expert and had previously proposed a machine based upon the Hornsby-Akroyd Tractor.
Tulloch’s proposal was more ambitious, he had in mind a vehicle made of linked tractors and armed with six 12 pounder guns, 12 machine guns and carrying 100 men.
The 3 men then started to spread their ideas around. Swinton talked to the BEF’s Engineer in Chief (General Fowke), Hankey spoke to Mr Asquith, the Prime Minister, who was “most appreciative and promised full support if Maurice Hankey could get the War Office to play”. Hankey tried to get them interested, and even spoke to Lord Kitchener, who pooh-pooed the idea, saying that such a machine would be shot up by the guns.
Both Hankey and Swinton each credit the other with having the original idea but what is clear is that Hankey took the lead in the next phase. At the end of December he wrote to the Prime Minister and a number of other ministers, including Winston Churchill. His note was a clear summary of the situation in France and Belgium which noted that the only way to break the deadlock was to either attack elsewhere or to devise a new means of overcoming the German defences. His proposal was for a number of large heavy rollers propelled from behind, the driving wheel being fitted with a caterpillar track for grip. It would be armoured and armed with a maxim gun. It’s aim was to crush barbed wire, to give cover to men creeping up behind, and to support the advance with machine gun fire.
Churchill was taken by the idea and he wrote to Asquith on 5 January 1915 saying:
MY DEAR PRIME MINISTER,
I entirely agree with Colonel Hankey’s remarks on the subject of special mechanical devices for taking trenches. It is extraordinary that the Army in the field and the War Office should have allowed nearly three months of warfare to progress without addressing their minds to its special problems. The present war has revolutionized all military theories about the field of fire..….The consequence is that the war has become a short-range instead of a long-range war.…..The question to be solved is ……the actual getting across 100 or 200 yards of open space and wire entanglements……It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armored shelters, in which men and machine-guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof.…….The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machine would destroy all wire entanglements………. A committee of engineering officers and other experts ought to be sitting continually at the War Office to formulate schemes and examine suggestions, and I would repeat that it is not possible in most cases to have lengthy experiments beforehand. If the devices are to be ready by the time they are required it is indispensable that manufacture should proceed simultaneously with experiments. The worst that can happen is that a comparatively small sum of money is wasted.
So the idea of caterpillar tracks was now being talked about at many levels but Churchill was primarily seeing them as a way of propelling something equipped with rollers. He wrote to Sueter and gave orders for some experiments using steam-rollers. Trials were indeed conducted but due to their inability to cross rutted ground the idea was shelved.
At about the same time Swinton put his ideas to Major General Scott-Moncrieff who was Director of Fortifications & Works. And soon after, Asquith handed Churchill’s letter to Lord Kitchener and pressed him to carry out some research. A committee was formed consisting of Scott-Moncrieff, General Guthrie-Smith (Director of Artillery), and Colonel Holden (assistant Director of Transport). They were told to look at the Swinton/Tulloch proposal and they were also asked to consider Admiral Bacon’s alternative machines, one propelled using caterpillar tracks, that carried a bridge to be used to cross trenches, and arrangements were made for a howitzer tractor, built by Fosters in Lincoln, to be modified for such a trial. And in parallel the committee inspected 2 Holt tractors.
Tulloch elaborated on his ideas in a memo written on 19 January 1915 titled “Land Ship”. He proposed machines that would break through the enemy wire and cross its trenches in order to open up a road for supporting infantry and in due course cavalry. He proposed 2 types of land ships; heavy cruisers which would be well armoured and armed, and destroyers which would be lighter and armed with machine guns. He specified using a caterpillar track based on the Holt tractor. He finished the memo by proposing the use of automotive engineers in the development of his land ships.
A trial of a Holt Tractor took place in Feb 15 at Shoeburyness. The vehicle was weighted down with sandbags to represent the weight of an armoured vehicle. It managed to break through the wire entanglements but it failed to cross the trenches and as a result it failed to be viewed favorably in the War Office who to all intents then shelved the project. But the Admiralty still thought the idea worthy of further consideration and the next Naval Officer who deserves some of the credit is T G Hetherington.
Originally an 18th Hussar, Hetherington was now in the RNAS and he proposed to Sueter a monster of a machine over 100 feet long which the Director of Naval Construction, Sir Eustace D’Eyncourt, calculated would weight over 100 tons. All agreed that such a concept would not be successful and instead they looked again at smaller machines. Through Hetherington’s encouragement, Sueter took a horse drawn Diplock machine to Horse Guards on 16 Feb 15 to show it to the 1st Sea Lord.
A day later Churchill dined with the Duke Of Westminster who commanded a Squadron of armoured cars. Hetherington was also present. 3 days later Churchill set up the Landships Committee under the Chairmanship of Eustace D’Eyncourt.
From that point, 17 February 1915, there is an unbroken chain of events that led to the first use of tanks in September 1916. *
On 26 March 1915 Churchill authorized the building and testing of 12 Pedrail machines and 6 big wheel machines (the Hetherington idea). He found the money, around £70000. He didn’t inform the War Office nor the Treasury of his plans. The contract for the wheeled machines were placed with Foster’s in Lincoln whose MD was William Tritton.
The wheeled machines were made to be made by Foden but a labour dispute caused their manufacture to be moved to the Metropolitan Carriage Company. But in July 1915 that company asked to be released from the contract as it had more pressing war work and so the contract was transferred to Foster’s.
In May 1915 the order was cut to 2 caterpillar machines, one a Pedrail and the other a Bullock machine.
And also in May a coalition government took over and Churchill was replaced by Arthur Balfour. Luckily Balfour was sympathetic to the Landships idea. At the same time a new product to trial was received from the US, a Killen-Strait tractor.
When it was demonstrated at the end of May the War Office were invited and with their renewed interest, the Landships Committee became a Joint Committee between the Admiralty and the War Office.
At this stage Swinton appears back on the scene. He had continued to nurse his original idea and the faiure of the 1915 spring offensives on the Western Front emphasized to him the need for such a machine. He wrote a very detailed memo on what he saw as the solution to the problem of trench to trench assault which proposed petrol engine powered caterpillar tracked machines armoured against armour piercing bullets and armed with machine guns and 2 pounders. He included details on their tactical employment.
The big wheel idea was shelved in June 1915 and the Pedrail was also dismissed as being too heavy. That left just a set of Bullock tracks recently arrived from the US, as the basis for further trials, and an order was placed with Foster’s.
* But this doesn’t mean that there was unanimity within the committee. One member, Col Crompton, proposed a self-moving fort for the attack and destruction of enemy trenches. None were built but an artists impression is shown here. Macfie also continued to push his ideas but these too didn’t make it to fruition.