Introduced in 1916, the British Mark I set the precedent for a range of tracked vehicles that would see use in World War II. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)
Even before the first tanks had gone into action the British were at work on more specialized tracked vehicles, one of which was a gun carrier. An adaptation of the Mark I, it was designed to carry a 6-inch howitzer through the initial German defensive zone in order to provide artillery support to advancing troops. Other tanks were modified to serve as troop carriers, supply tanks, and even signal vehicles.
Designed by an engineer at tank manufacturer Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon & Finance, the carrier was based on a lowered tank chassis with a bed to accommodate a British BL 5-inch field cannon or 6-inch howitzer, their respective wheels removed and mounted along the carrier’s hull. Transporting the artillery piece to the field, the carrier crew could remove it by means of a pivoting cradle and two winding drums and remount it on its wheels. In theory, the crew could fire either gun from the vehicle. In practice, only the howitzer was fireable while in motion.
The engineer completed a prototype in time for Tank Trials Day at Oldbury on March 3, 1917, and the army immediately placed an order for 50 gun carriages with Kitson & Co. in Leeds. In July 1917 two Gun Carrier Companies were formed of 24 vehicles each. Probably none of them ever fired a shot in anger. As breakthroughs never materialised the vehicles were ultimately only used as supply tanks. It was calculated a single tank had the same carrying capacity as 291 human porters.
Two vehicles out of the order of fifty were finished as Gun Carrier Cranes, salvage tanks with a hand-operated crane in the front. The forward cabs were absent.
There was a project for a Gun Carrier Mark II. Early in 1917 a wooden mock-up was made of an improved type, carrying the gun at the back. A real prototype was partly built, but never finished, the sole result of the project being that the original type is now known as the Gun Carrier Mark I.
Awkward as the Mark I was, it set the precedent for a range of self-propelled weaponry that would see widespread use among all combatants in World War II and thereafter.
Initially during the experimental stage the gun carrying tanks were manned by the Royal Garrison Artillery and Army Service Corps drivers. Initially formed into independent sections of 6 tanks, they were embodied into the Tank Corps. The RGA provided one NCO per tank whose duty it was to take charge of the mounting and dismounting of the guns.
One of those RGA NCO,s , Corporal A Hokins was one of the first casualties killed when tank no 100 received a direct hit from a German 5.9 inch shell, 29th September 1917.
CWGC – Corporal Albert Hopkins- Royal Garrison Artillery attached Tank Corps died 1st October 1917.
A veteran of the Boer War, he was a native of Small Heath, Birmingham.
The four sections were concentrated together to form 1st Gun Carrier Company Tank Corps on 22nd November 1917. Experienced had proved that the services of the RGA NCO’s could be dispensed with, and they were returned to their units on 31st January 1918.
The Company were not called upon until May 1918, by which time it had been decided that the tanks were better employed as supply carriers, and consequently the heavy gun tackle and fittings on the tanks were removed in preparation for their new role.
The use of Gun Carrying tanks therefore ceased in May 1918.
History of 1st Gun Carrier Company Tank Corps July 1917 to May 1918
Source: History of the 1st Gun Carrier Company Tank Corps. WO95 / 100 Image 519 page 122
During the First Battle of the Somme, difficulty was experienced in moving guns of a heavy calibre forward. To alleviate this problem the gun carrier was developed, capable of carrying a 6 inch Howitzer or 60 pounder gun, together with a supply of ammunition. The designed allowed the gun to be quickly mounted / dismounted of fired from the carrier tank. The carrier could then be used to as a mechanism to supply ammunition to the guns.
The first gun carrier tank (no 100) was built at Leeds by Kitson & Company and brought to France in July 1917. The tank was manned by personnel of the Royal Garrison Artillery, with Army service Corps NCO’s and drivers attached. Experimental work was carried out at Erin and Proven (near Ypres).
It was then decided to embody the gun carrying tanks into the Tank Corps. Arrangements were then made to form independent Gun Carrying sections.
A Section Formed 9th Jul 1917 at Leeds deployed France 31st Aug 1917
B Section Formed 6th Sep 1917 at Bovington deployed to France 3rd Sep 1917
C Section Formed 23 Sep 1917 at Bovington deployed to France 7th Nov 1917
D Section Formed Oct 1917 at Bovington deployed to France 4th Dec 1917
Each section included six Royal Garrison Artillery NCO’s (one per tank), whose duty it was to take charge of the mounting and dismounting of the guns.
On formation, A section initially conducted driving training and mounting / dismounting of guns in Leeds. Experimental firing at Shoeburyness preceded embarkation to France 31st August. On arrival at Erin, training was continued until 6th September, when six gun carrying tanks were drawn from the central workshops. The section then deployed to Ouderdon. Here further trials were conducted, when it became apparent that owing to mechanical troubles and the nature of the ground the tails, as then fitted to the tanks, were undesirable and accordingly abandoned before actual operations were commenced.
Operations commenced a with the deployment of 4 tanks to Zillebekke and 2 tanks to Three Kilo Point (near Woodcote House), where they were employed carrying 6 inch Howitzers and 60 pounder guns and ammunition. It was during this action that the first casualties were sustained when tank 106 received a direct hit from a 5.9 inch shell. The section commander Lt EM Brown[CWGC Information] and 6 Tank Corps soldiers were killed or died from wounds. An RGA Corporal, Albert Hopkins was also killed.
With further sections being formed in the UK, the sections were to be amalgamated to form a company under the command of Major AB Tawse, and further additions would be made to bring the strength up to the establishment.
Operations continued until 19th November when the section entrained at Riegersburg ramp en route to Erin where the tanks were handed into the Central Workshops, where two were found to be non-operational.
They deployed again on the 22nd November 1917, detraining at Ypres moving to Hermies to take part in the first battle for Cambrai. They were employed moving ammunition from the Decauville railway to the batteries positioned on the line of the Grand Canal du Nord. They continued until 20th December when they returned to Erin, before moving to the Depot Camp at Treport.
B section embarked for France on 3rd November after initial training at Bovington. After a few days at Erin, they entrained for Happy Valley near Fricourt where they drew 5 gun carrying tanks. After moving to Le Platrau, they entrained on the 19th November for Ypres. Deploying to Havrincourt Road, they undertook work supplying fighting tanks, then subsequently gun / ammunition carrying for the RGA from 20th to 27th November. They continued until 20th December when all but two tanks returned to Erin. The remaining two gun carriers carried guns and ammunition for 63rd H.B. group. They continued until 19th January 1918, one tank transferring to salvage work, the other to entraining to the central workshops.
When A & B sections met up at Erin, their tanks were sent to the central workshops. The personnel moved by train to Treport, where they were able to spend Christmas in billets at the Depot Camp.
C section arrived at Erin on the 12th November. Whilst continuing their training, they shared in the work of maintaining supplies of ammunition to the battle tanks in action at Cambrai. On 2nd December they moved to the Depot Camp at Treport.
D section embarked for France 4th December, and proceeded directly to the depot Camp at Trecourt.
The 1st Gun Carrier Company was officially formed 22nd November 1917, however it was not until January 1918 that formation arrangements could be carried out as the sections concentrated at the camp. Organisation and training as a company commenced, culminating with an inspection by Commander Tank Corps 19th January 1918.
Experienced had proved that the services of the RGA NCO’s could be dispensed with, and they were returned to their units on 31st January 1918. On 5th February 1918, Major Moore assumed command.
The Company’s initial tasking was the provision of working parties from 14th February till 14th March. It was not until 10th April before 12 gun carrying tanks arrived from at the Mers ramp. The intervening time being spent training, the tedium of in action being relieved by many football matches and concert parties. Time was now spent preparing the tanks, and bringing the company up to strength with the arrival of 10 subalterns and 3 OR’s from the depot, as well as 19 OR’s from no 2 gun carrying company.
The next deployment commenced 26th April when the company with 10 tanks moved to Erin. After training, they moved to Humeroruille. Further experimentation with gun carrying work was undertaken, and the company drew a further 14 gun carrying tanks from central stores, bringing the total to 24.
On 22nd May, 12 gun carrying tanks were handed over to no 2 Gun Carrying Company. The other 12 tanks were moved by train for Foulainville, then then tracked to Querrieu Wood on the Amiens-Albert Wood. The remainder of the company remained at Humeroruille to draw 12 more tanks. In Querrien Wood, a camp was established.
Whilst in this location it was decided that the carriers were best used in the moving of stores for Battle Tanks, Infantry, Artillery and Engineers. Consequently the heavy gun tackle and fittings on the tanks were removed in preparation for their new role.
The use of Gun Carrying tanks therefore ceased in May 1918.