Sourton Down

The Royalists followed up their advantage after Braddock Down by again invading Devon, and advancing as far as Tavistock, before turning their attention to Plymouth. The town’s defenders had expected an imminent attack after Braddock Down and had hastily strengthened their defences. Possibly because of the need to build up their forces, both sides entered into abortive negotiations for a truce. These never had any realistic prospects of success, for the Royalists demanded free passage for their forces to join the King, whilst all garrisons in Devon and Cornwall were to be either dismantled or handed over to Royalist control.

Another factor influencing Hopton was that, without the support of the Cornish Trained Bands, who continued to refuse to cross the Tamar, he could not establish a full blockade of Plymouth — which was, in any case, unlikely to fall as long as it could be supplied by sea. As in his previous attempt, Hopton could do no more than establish a series of outposts on the approaches to Plymouth, an endeavour which Bevil Grenville, for one, felt was unlikely to succeed. Writing to his wife on 20 February, he remarked that ‘Plymouth is still supplied with men and all sorts of provisions by sea which we cannot hinder, and therefore for my part I see no hope of taking it.’

His forebodings were justified the next day. The Royalists had stationed two regiments at Modbury to secure the eastern flank of their blockading troops. Meanwhile the Parliamentarians had been struggling, with some difficulty, to organise a relieving force in Devon. Eventually soldiers were mustered in the north of the county, and, advancing south-westwards, they chased a small Royalist detachment under Sir John Berkeley out of Chagford. Berkeley fell back to join Hopton’s main force, leaving the way clear for the Parliamentarian troops to move into south Devon and link up with men from Plymouth.

Early on 21 February 1643 they attacked Modbury, the Royalists crediting them with 9–10,000 men, a figure certainly inflated for a force which included many ill-armed ‘clubmen’. The Royalist defending force was formed around John Trevanion and William Godolphin’s Regiments of Foot, with some dragoons and about five light guns. In all there were perhaps 1,500–1,700 Royalists in the town. They threw up barricades covering the entrances to Modbury and placed musketeers in the hedges on its approaches, but after an exchange lasting for about three hours, with light casualties, the Royalist outposts were forced back into Modbury.

As the Parliamentarian assault continued into the night, the Royalists ran short of ammunition. Fighting eventually died down around midnight, and in the early hours of the morning the Royalists slipped away through an unguarded exit, leaving behind five guns. The defenders probably lost about a hundred men, compared with an admitted dozen casualties for the Parliamentarians. Losses had been relatively light because most of the fighting had taken place in the cover of thick hedgerows and steep banks, men firing more or less blindly in the direction of the enemy. The Royalist prisoners had a narrow escape from a more unpleasant fate, however, as the Earl of Stamford, it was reported, briefly considered giving them to the Barbary corsairs in exchange for existing captives who might be enlisted in the Parliamentarian forces. He was dissuaded on the grounds of likely Royalist reprisals.

The reverse at Modbury caused Hopton once again to abandon his attack on Plymouth. He pulled back to Tavistock. The Parliamentarians, for their part, were unable to follow up their success because of large-scale desertions among their troops, ‘the undisciplined forces of this county . . . consisting chiefly of Trained Bands altogether incapable to follow our victory into Cornwall . . .’

All that had been achieved at the end of the campaign was an uneasy stalemate, with both sides in need of a breathing space to rebuild their forces. A truce was agreed in March, and this would eventually be extended until 22 April; under it, the Royalists pulled back once more to the west of the Tamar. Neither side had any interest in a permanent peace settlement in the area, which would in any case have been rejected by their national leaderships, but they saw the truce as a much-needed opportunity to rest and strengthen their forces in preparation for what they hoped would be a decisive campaign.

The Earl of Stamford was able to raise three new regiments of foot, giving him a total of about 3,500 — 2,000 of them seamen — and eight troops of horse. He also imported 1,500 muskets from the Low Countries. For their part, the Royalists brought in at least one shipload of munitions from France, and on 10 April the Royalist gentry and freeholders of Cornwall agreed to a weekly assessment of £750 on Cornwall and a voluntary loan of £3,000 in plate.

By 22 April both Royalists and Parliamentarians had been mobilised for the next round. The main Parliamentarian field force of about 1,500 foot and 200 horse, under the energetic twenty-five-year-old Major General James Chudleigh — Stamford was at Exeter, incapacitated by gout — was mustered at Liston, three miles from the Cornish border. The Royalists were numerically superior, but disadvantaged in having to spread their forces to guard the several crossing places of the Tamar. Their main force, consisting of the 1,200 men of Grenville’s Regiment, accompanied by Hopton, was at Launceston. Chudleigh decided to make Launceston his initial objective, and during the evening of 22 April his advance guard moved up to the eastern end of Polson Bridge, awaiting the expiration of the truce. Early on Sunday, 23 April, the Parliamentarians seized the bridge and advanced into Cornwall.

Hopton, informed by his scouts of the enemy’s anticipated advance, led half of Grenville’s Regiment out to occupy a strong defensive position on Beacon Hill, to the east of Launceston, whilst sending messages for the remainder of his army to join him with all possible speed. William Godolphin’s Regiment soon began to arrive, whilst Grenville’s men had taken up position in the hedges at the foot of Beacon Hill, with reserves of pikes and musketeers higher up its slopes.

Chudleigh’s men advanced across the fields towards the Royalist positions and commenced a largely ineffective fire, the soldiers as usual firing blindly from cover. As the morning wore on, Hopton was reinforced by Lord Mohun’s Foot Regiment and some horse under Sir John Berkeley. The Parliamentarians were now significantly outnumbered but meanwhile had made slight progress, forcing the Royalists’ front line back towards their reserves.

Fighting is unlikely to have been continuous, and at about 5 p.m. Hopton was joined by Slanning’s and Trevanion’s Regiments. He was at last strong enough to counter-attack, and in the early evening he mounted a three-pronged offensive, under himself, Berkeley and Francis Bassett, employing 3,000 foot and 600 horse. His flanks threatened, Chudleigh began to fall back, but he was rescued from a potentially serious situation by the arrival from Plymouth of about 600 men of Sir John Merrick’s grey-coated foot regiment, who launched a counter-attack. This helped ease enemy pressure sufficiently for Chudleigh’s army to fall back across Polson Bridge to its starting point at Lifton.

The Parliamentarians admitted to the loss of seven to ten dead and forty wounded, whilst the Royalists’ losses are unlikely to have been much heavier. Hopton’s pursuit was half-hearted, partly because a hut containing the enemy powder magazine blew up, injuring a number of his men, and also because of a mutiny among the Cornish. As Hopton later wrote, scathingly, ‘The common soldiers, according to their usual custom after a fight, grew disorderly and mutinous, and the commanders were always short of means either to satisfy them or otherwise to command them.’ By the time any serious follow-up could be organised, Chudleigh had withdrawn to Okehampton. Here a number of his units went their separate ways, leaving him with about 1,000 foot and three or four troops of horse.

Hearing that the Parliamentarians at Okehampton were in a state of some confusion and disagreement, and with low morale, the Royalist commanders decided to exploit the situation with a dawn attack on 25 April. As the Royalist army formed up for a night march across Sourton Down towards Okehampton, they seemed to a complacent Hopton to be ‘the handsomest body of men that had been gotten together in those parts all that war’. Crossing Sourton Down, the Royalists formed into column. They were led by 150 mounted dragoons, intended to act as scouts, followed by 150 horse. Then came half of the foot, led by Mohun’s Regiment, followed by the artillery, in advance of the remainder of the foot, with another 300 horse and dragoons bringing up the rear.

Eventually news of the enemy’s approach reached an astounded and furious Chudleigh. As he wrote later,

By the intolerable neglect of our lying deputy Scout Master, we were surprised by the whole enemy body of horse and foot . . . and by the incomparable dullness of Sergeant-Major Price, the carriage of our Ammunition and artillery was dismissed, contrary to orders express against it, so that I was forced to this sad Dilemma, to loose the Ordnance, and all that we had here( which in all probability would have been the ruin of the whole Kingdom) or to hazard a desperate Charge (which for ought I knew might have routed the whole Army).

Chudleigh, however, a veteran of the Irish wars and a combative character, determined not to give up without a fight. After a hasty council of war he led three troops of horse, totalling 108 men, out on to Sourton Down. Breaking his force down into six squadrons, each of eighteen men, Chudleigh deployed them across the down in ambush, with a hill behind them which helped them blend into the darkness.

By now the Royalist column was approaching, blissfully unaware of the imminent threat, ‘never, as they conceived, in better order, nor in better equipage, nor ever, (which had like to have spoiled all) in less apprehension of the Enemy.’ Hopton, with Sir John Berkeley and Colonel Thomas Bassett, was riding at the head of the column, the commanders, by Hopton’s own later admission, ‘carelessly entertaining themselves’, when suddenly the first of Chudleigh’s troops, under Captain Thomas Drake, came galloping out of the darkness, firing at Hopton’s dragoons and yelling, ‘Fall on, fall on, they run, they run!’

The result was chaos. The Royalist dragoons, for the most part raw levies, broke and fled, carrying away with them in their rout the 150 cavalry immediately behind them, together with Sir Ralph Hopton and his companions. The remainder of the Parliamentarian cavalry now joined in the attack. Early in the fighting they overheard the Royalist field word, ‘Launceston’, which enabled them to add to the confusion.

The first body of Cornish foot were already alarmed and demoralised by the sudden onset of a thunderstorm, and the attack by the enemy horse, the small number of whom was not apparent in the darkness, proved too much. The Cornish fled in all directions, ‘the night growing tempestuous with Hideous Claps of Thunder’, and the lightning reportedly igniting the powder charges of some unfortunate musketeers. With cries that ‘the militia fought not against them but the Devil’, a large number of Hopton’s foot disappeared into the night, throwing away their weapons and equipment to hasten their flight.

Surging on, Chudleigh’s men briefly overran the Royalist guns and wagons, but the impetus of their attack was faltering. Hopton’s artillery guard counter-attacked, retaking their guns and positioning them behind a ditch. Here they were reinforced by musketeers from Slanning’s Regiment, some of whom had sharpened stakes — known as ‘Swedish or swines’ feathers’ — which could be erected as a defence against horse.

Avoiding these organised opponents, the Parliamentarian cavalry spent some time skirmishing with parties of fleeing Royalists. In the meantime Chudleigh ordered his foot in Okehampton to advance and attack Slanning’s position. However, the lighted match of the Parliamentarian musketeers was sighted glowing in the darkness by the Royalists, who discharged two drakes at them. The Parliamentarian foot broke in their turn and made off.

There was little more that Chudleigh could do to exploit his success and his troopers, having hung lighted match in gorse bushes to deceive the enemy, withdrew. By now the storm and heavy rain had reached a new intensity, and the Royalists pulled back to Launceston.

Sourton Down had been a major humiliation for Hopton. Considerably more of his men had been routed and scattered than killed or captured, though he lost a large quantity of weapons and other equipment. He probably suffered between 20 and 100 dead and a dozen prisoners. Of the latter,

Captain Wrey being then but 15 years of age, and little stature, but a spritely [sic] gallant youth, and then commanded a company in the Lord Mohun’s Regiment that had the vanguard was taken prisoner and carried down to Okehampton, but the troopers that took him being careless of him and thinking him but a trooper’s boy he took the opportunity to make his escape into the night, and three days after[wards] returned into Cornwall with a dozen or 13 Musketeers of the stragglers that he had collected.

It was a small comfort in a thoroughly humiliating and exasperating episode for Hopton, and one for which he had only himself to blame.

The Royalists spent the next few days at Launceston, reorganising and rounding up stragglers. They then advanced again to Tavistock, and considered another move against Okehampton. However, hearing that the Parliamentarians there had been reinforced, Hopton again fell back across the Tamar.


The Battle of Sheipoo

Soon after Vice Admiral Courbet’s proclamation of the blockade of Taiwan, the Imperial Court in Peking demanded action to be taken in order to relieve it. Thus, orders were given to the commanders of the Peiyang and Nanyang districts – Li Hung-chang and Tseng Kuo-ch’uan. After the annihilation of the Fukien Fleet, the Nanyang Fleet was most suitable to lift the blockade of Taiwan, but Tsen Kuo-ch’uan was unwilling to risk ‘his’ warships in the coming operation without participation of the Peiyang Fleet ships. After long-lasting arguments, both Li and Tseng decided to detach five warships from their respective fleets, and send the squadron thus created to the coast of Taiwan.

Tseng Kuo-ch’uan detached the cruisers K’ai Chi, Nan Ch’en, Nan Shui and Yu Yuan as well as the small cruiser Teng Ch’ing for the planned operation. Li Hung-chang ultimately sent only two small cruisers, Chao Yung and Yang Wei, instead of the promised five warships. The two cruisers arrived at Shanghai at the beginning of December 1884. For Li, the situation in Korea was a priority, compared to which the conflict with France was less important. Meanwhile, in December 1884 a pro-Japanese coup d’état was attempted in Seoul. It was suppressed with help of Chinese troops, but the situation was exacerbated to such an extent, that on December 10, Li Hung-chang requested the Tsungli Yamen to relieve both cruisers from the planned mission.

The arguments made for the withdrawal of the two ships were not without grounds. Chao Yung and Yang Wei were, despite their relatively small displacement, very modern warships of substantial fighting strength, so the Tsungli Yamen suggested sending to Korean waters the older vessels Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing. However, Li, not waiting for the Tsungli Yamen’s reply, ordered ‘his’ warships to leave Shanghai, which they immediately did, returning to Port Arthur. Consequently, only the aforementioned five vessels of the Nanyang Fleet took part in the operation against the French squadron blockading Taiwan. Admiral Wu An-k’ang assumed command of the squadron, while Vice Admiral Ting Ju-chang, Li Hung-chang’s ‘man’, detached from the Peiyang Fleet became the second in command.

In preparation for the operation, at the end of December 1884, Wu’s squadron departed Shanghai for Wusung to perform gunnery drill. Soon thereafter, the Chinese warships sailed to Chusan. After two weeks spent on further gun nery practice, at the end of January 1885 they headed south. Admiral Wu was not in a hurry, as a result, the Chinese squadron arrived at Nankou only on January 25. The next day it reached Yuehnan, 200 NM north of Foochow. Admiral Wu next made for Wenchow, which he intended to use as a base for further operations. However, instead of taking decisive action, the Chinese commander began to cruise, unproductively, along the coast of the Chekiang province, clearly in fear of an encounter with the French warships.

At the end of January Vice Admiral Courbet received the first piece of intelligence concerning the dispatching of the Chinese squadron to relieve Taiwan. It was transmitted by Captain Baux, the commander of the armoured cruiser Triomphante, then stationed in Hong Kong. The notification was soon confirmed by news reports, on February 3, so Courbet sent orders to the commanders of Triomphante and Nielly that the French naval forces should be concentrated at Matsu, at the mouth of the Min River, where he arrived himself with Bayard, Ėclaireur, Aspic and Saône three days later. Soon thereafter, that force was joined by the cruiser Duguay- Trouin. Blockade duty at Taiwan was carried on by Rear Admiral Lespès’ squadron composed of La Galissonnière, Atalante, D’Estaing and Volta in the north as well as Villars and Champlain in the south.

Initially the French admiral thought that Admiral Wu’s squadron’s destination was Foochow, hence an order on February 6 for the ships to blockade the mouth of the Min River. On the same day, Courbet acquired additional information about the movements of the enemy squadron that revealed its commander’s passivity. In view of that intelligence, on February 7 the French commander seized the initiative and headed north. On the fourth day of the journey the French reached Chusan.

Since the enemy was not present in the harbour, Vice Admiral Courbet decided to turn back towards the mouth of the Yangtze River. His squadron reached his destination the next day (except Duguay-Trouin, which was running short of coal and had to be sent to Keelung) and dropped anchors at Gutzlaff Island. After contacting the local telegraph station, Courbet received new information concerning Admiral Wu’s squadron (his warships had been seen in Sanmoon Bay a day before) and on February 12 the squadron headed south. This time, the French admiral was almost certain to encounter the enemy. Therefore for the entire night the warships of his squadron were in a state of advanced combat readiness. Indeed, at dawn, on February 13, the cruiser Ėclaireur, steaming at the head of the French squadron, spotted five Chinese vessels on the horizon.

Admiral Wu spent the night of February 12/13 at anchor in Sanmoon Bay at Montagu Island. At about 05:00 his warships weighed anchor and steamed into the open seas, circling the island from the south at which point they were spotted by the French, who were approaching from the north. At that time the Chinese squadron was steaming in two line-ahead columns: K’ai Chi (flagship), Nan Shui and Nan Ch’en formed the starboard column, and Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing, the port.

Although Admiral Wu initially intended to accept battle, upon spotting the approaching enemy, he apparently suddenly changed his mind and ordered the slow Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing to turn back to nearby Sheipoo (Sheip’u). Wu then attempted to escape with the three remaining cruisers. It was 07:00 and both squadrons were no more than 10 NM apart.

After spotting the enemy, the entire French squadron began to chase the Chinese warships. Reaching 13 knots, the French warships were steaming in the following order: Bayard (flagship), Nielly, Ėclaireur and Triomphante (the last cruiser was initially behind the flagship, but was unable to maintain the speed of over 12 knots and gradually fell behind), while the slower Aspic and Saône finished the formation. Meanwhile, K’ai Chi, Nan Shui and Nan Ch’en, capable of reaching 14-15 knots, broke away from the two remaining Chinese warships and headed south-east, while Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing, following Wu’s orders, headed for Sheipoo.

Confronted with that situation, Vice Admiral Courbet ordered the slower Triomphante, Saône and Aspic to deal with the vessels fleeing towards Sheipoo, while he, along with Bayard, Nielly and Ėclaireur continued the pursuit of Admiral Wu’s cruisers. It soon became apparent that the French cruisers were not capable of catching the fleeing Chinese vessels. The situation was exacerbated when the weather soon broke and visibility was considerably reduced. Consequently, Vice Admiral Courbet abandoned the pursuit and, at about 13:00, joined his three remaining warships guarding Sheipoo.

The harbour of Sheipoo was located within a labyrinth of islands, islets and shallows. Four waterways leading to it were unknown to the French. For that reason, although the harbour was not guarded by any fortifications, Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing were relatively safe at Sheipoo, since Vice Admiral Courbet did not dare to venture with his warships into the treacherous, unknown waters. The only thing that he could do was to guard the entrances of the three waterways and that of the nearby Sanmoon Bay in case the Chinese ships attempted to slip away.

During the night and in the morning of the following day, three French steam launches covered by the gunboat Aspic, reconnoitred the waterways and located both Chinese warships anchored between Sheipoo and Tungnun Island. Since it was still dangerous for the French cruisers to close on the enemy, Vice Admiral Courbet decided to send in the steam launches armed with spar torpedoes.

Commanders of the launches which sunk the Chinese cruisers at Sheipoo: Commander Palma Gourdon (right) and Lieutenant Émile Duboc (left).

Two launches from Bayard commanded respectively by Commander Palma Gourdon and Lieutenant Émile Duboc were designated for the action, each armed with one, 1878-pattern spar torpedo with a charge containing 12 kg of pyroxylin. The preparations had been completed by 22:00 and at 23:00 (February 14) both launches, guided by another two launches under the command of the hydrographer Lieutenant Ravel, set off for their mission. The night was very dark, which on the one hand favoured the attackers but also increased the danger of their launches grounding, getting separated or getting lost in the labyrinth of islands. Fortunately for the French, all the launches managed to avoid these dangers. Finally, at 03.00 both torpedo launches, struggling with the strong current, reached the inner roads of Sheipoo, where they began to search for the enemy warships.

As it turned out, finding the Chinese ships was not as easy as had been supposed. The French steam launches performing the reconnaissance of the waterways had been spotted during their sortie. Therefore, before 10:00 the previous day, Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing shifted their position and anchored closer to the town. After some time searching, the launch commanded by Gourdon was the first to locate the enemy, namely the Yu Yuan. The French launch managed to approach undetected within 200 metres of the enemy, and at 03:45 they extended the spar torpedo into its combat position and began their attack. They were at that moment spotted from the cruiser’s deck, but it was too late to open fire with the ship’s battery (particularly because the Chinese crews had not maintained full combat readiness) and the launch was instead chaotically fired on with small arms and mitrailleuses. This could not stop the French vessel, which successfully detonated her spar torpedo on the Yu Yuan’s starboard stern quarter and retreated, although not without suffering losses. One sailor was killed and the launch’s boiler was slightly damaged.

The attack of the launch commanded by Gourdon on the cruiser Yu Yuan.

In the meantime, taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, the second French launch commanded by Duboc began her own attack. Practically unnoticed, she approached the Yu Yuan’s port side, but her spar torpedo failed to explode. It seems Lt. Duboc maintained his composure and since there was no time to once again detonate the torpedo at the Yu Yuan’s side (the launch had to keep moving and could not stop or go back), he apparently headed for Teng Ch’ing, anchored slightly further away, and repeated the attack. That time, the torpedo exploded at the side of the enemy vessel and Duboc’s launch retreated suffering no casualties.

Soon after the attack, both French launch es rendezvoused and together (Gourdon’s faster launch towed Duboc’s) set out for the rest of the French squadron. Their return journey was not without adventures – at about 05:00 Gourdon’s launch grounded, but was refloated with help from her consort. At 10:00, after steaming through the channel between the Islands of Kintan and Niumio (Niumiu), the launches reached the transport Saône. At the same time, Lt. Ravel was waiting for both launches’ return at the entrance north-west of Niumio Island. Only at dawn did he gave up further waiting and returned to the armoured cruiser Bayard.

On February 16 it was confirmed that both Chinese vessels had sunk. On hearing the news, the French warships weighed anchor and departed Sheipoo. Triomphante, Nielly and Saône headed for Keelung, while Bayard, Ėclaireur and Aspic steamed to Matsu.

As far as the crews of the Chinese warships were concerned, their losses during the attack were small and were apparently limited to only one man killed on board Yu Yuan8. Following the evacuation to the shore, the Chinese sea men set out for Shanghai. After four days they reached Chenhai, where they encountered the remainder of Admiral Wu’s squadron which had been reinforced with the small cruisers Chao Wu and Yuan K’ai as well as the gunboats Lung Hsing and Hu Wei. Since the French blockaded Chenhai soon thereafter, the Chinese squadron remained trapped until the end of the war.


The British Mercantile Marine and Fishing Fleets WWI

Admiralty Drifters

Among the great deeds of the war there is one which, though hardly to be described in detail, ranks in truth among the greatest of all. It is a collective deed: the conduct of the whole British Mercantile Marine and the Fishing Fleet – Services not less worthy than the professional Navy and Army to represent the “decent and dauntless people” of these islands. It had been prophesied before the war that after three ships had been sunk by enemy submarines no merchantman would put to sea. The prophet, though himself a naval man, can have known little of the resourcefulness of his own Service, and still less of the temper of his fellow-countrymen.

During the four years of the war, British commerce was never held up by any unwillingness of our seamen to face gun-fire or torpedo: skippers, engineers, and deck hands who had had three, four, or five ships sunk under them were constantly asking to be employed again before their clothes were dry. Seventeen thousand of them died in the 9,000,000 tons of shipping that we lost; yet not a man among the survivors drew back. On the contrary, it must be recorded that the enemy owed much of his success to the habitual and imperturbable confidence of the British skipper in his own ship and his own judgment. The men of the Mercantile Marine and Fishing Fleets also took their full share in the work of defending our coasts and hunting down their lawless and cruel enemies; and in this work they showed every quality of a great Service. It was in no empty form of words that the King honoured the memory of “that great company of our men, who, though trained only to the peaceful traffic of the sea, yet in the hour of national danger gave themselves, with the ancient skill and endurance of their breed, to face new perils and new cruelties of war, and in a right cause served fearlessly to the end.” Of this skill, endurance, and fearlessness, recorded in a thousand terse and unpretentious logs, an example or two may be picked almost at random.

In 1915, when the U-boat war was still a new experience, a sharp little double action was fought by two armed smacks, the Boy Alfred and the I’ll Try, against two German submarines. The British boats were commanded by Skipper Walter S. Wharton and Skipper Thomas Crisp, and were out in the North Sea, when they sighted a pair of U-boats coming straight towards them on the surface. The first came within 300 yards of the Boy Alfred and stopped. Then followed an extraordinary piece of work, intelligible only to the German mind. The U-boat signalled with a flag to the Boy Alfred to come nearer, and at the same time opened fire upon her with rifles or a machine-gun, hitting her in many places, though by mere chance not a single casualty resulted.

Skipper Wharton’s time had not yet come; he was neither for submission nor for a duel at long range; he risked all for a close fight. He first threw out his small boat, and by this encouraged the U-boat to approach nearer. She submerged and immediately reappeared within a hundred yards. A man then came out of the conning-tower and hailed the Boy Alfred, giving the order to abandon ship, as he intended to torpedo. But Skipper Wharton had now the range he desired – the hundred yards hammer and tongs range so dear to Nelson’s gunners – and instead of “Abandon ship” he gave the order “Open fire.” His man at the 12-pounder did not fail him; the first round was just short, and the second just over, but having straddled his target, the gunner put his third shot into the submarine’s hull, just before the conning-tower, where it burst on contact. The fourth shot was better still: it pierced the conning-tower and burst inside. The U-boat, with her torpedo unfired, sank like a stone, and a significant wide-spreading patch of oil marked her grave.

In the meantime the second enemy had gone to the east of the I’ll Try, who was herself east of the Boy Alfred. He was still more cautious than his companion, and remained submerged for some time, cruising around the I’ll Try with only a periscope showing. Skipper Crisp, having a motor fitted to his smack, was too handy for the German, and kept altering course so as to bring the periscope ahead of him, whenever it was visible. The enemy disappeared entirely no less than six times, but at last summoned up courage to break surface. His hesitation was fatal to him – he had given the smack time to make every preparation with perfect order and coolness. When he appeared suddenly at last, his upper deck and conning-tower were no sooner clearly exposed than Skipper Crisp put his helm hard over, brought the enemy on to his broadside, and opened fire with his 13-pounder gun. At this moment a torpedo passed under the smack’s stern, missing only by 2 feet, then coming to the surface and running along past the Boy Alfred. It was the U-boat’s first and last effort; in the same instant, the I’ll Try fired her only shot. The shell struck the base of the conning-tower and exploded, blowing pieces of the submarine into the water on all sides.

The U-boat immediately took a list to starboard and plunged bows first; she disappeared so rapidly that the smack’s gunner had not even time for a second blow. The I’ll Try hurried to the spot, and there saw large bubbles of air coming up, and a wide and increasing patch of oil. She marked the position with a Dan buoy and stood by with the Boy Alfred for three-quarters of an hour. Finally, as the enemy gave no sign of life, the two smacks returned together to harbour. Their skippers were both rewarded for their excellent work ; Skipper Wharton, who had already killed two U-boats and had received the D.S.C. and the D.S.M. with a bar, was now given a bar to the D.S.C. Skipper Crisp already had the D.S.M., and now received the D.S.C.

In another of these fishermen’s fights it was the trawl itself which actually brought on the battle at close quarters and made victory possible. One day in February 1915 the trawler Rosetta, Skipper G. A. Novo, had gone out to fish, but she had on deck a 6-pounder gun ingeniously concealed. She joined a small fleet of four smacks and two steam trawlers some 45 miles out, and fished with them all night. Before dawn a voice was heard shouting out of the twilight: it came from one of the steam trawlers. “Cut your gear away, there’s a submarine three-quarters of a mile away; he’s sunk a smack and I have the crew on board.” “ All right, thank you,” said Skipper Novo; but to get away from the enemy was precisely what he did not want to do. For some fifteen minutes he went on towing his trawl, in hope of being attacked; but as nothing happened, he thought he was too far away from the smacks, and began to haul up his trawl. He was bringing his boat round before the wind, and had all but the last twenty fathoms of the trawl in, when the winch suddenly refused to heave any more, and the warp ran out again about ten fathoms – a thing beyond all experience. “Hullo !” said the skipper, “there’s something funny.” He jumped down off the bridge and asked the mate what was the reason of the winch running back. “I don’t know, skipper; the stop-valve is opened out full.” The skipper tried it himself; then went to the engine-man and asked him if full steam was on. “The steam’s all right.” “Then reverse winch!” said the skipper, and went to give a hand himself, as was his custom in a difficulty; the hauling went on this time, all but to the end.

Suddenly the mate gripped him by the arm. “Skipper, a submarine on board us.” And there the enemy was, a bare hundred yards off on the starboard quarter. “Hard a-starboard, and a tick ahead!” shouted the skipper, and rushed for the gun, with the crew following. The gun was properly in charge of the mate, and he got to it first; but the brief dialogue which followed robbed him of his glory. “Right, skipper,” he said, meaning thereby “This is my job.” But in the same breath the skipper said, “All right, Jack, I got him! you run on bridge and keep him astern.” The Rosetta’s discipline was good; the mate went like a man, and the skipper laid the gun.

He was justified by his success. The enemy was very quickly put out of action, being apparently left altogether behind by the hurricane energy of Skipper Novo. From the moment of breaking surface less than sixty seconds had gone by when the Rosetta’s gun found the target. The U-boat was 250 feet long and only 300 feet away; every shot was a hit. The fourth caused an explosion, and flames shot up 4 or 5 feet above the submarine. Evidently she could no longer submerge, and she attempted to make off on the surface. But Skipper Novo was right in his estimate of his own chance – he had “got him.” His fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth shots were all direct hits on the receding target, and at the eighth the enemy sank outright.

The Rosetta then spoke the smack Noel, which had been close to her during the action, and now confirmed all her observations. There was no doubt that the U-boat had been the obstruction which was tangled in the trawl. She had carried it all away, and in order to get clear had been obliged to come to the surface, without knowing where she might find herself, and there she had met her appropriate fate.

A third of these fights was a miniature fleet action, with an epic sound about it. In the Downs, and in the first twilight of a November morning, three of his Majesty’s armed drifters – the Present Help, the Paramount, and the Majesty were beginning their daily sweep for mines, when Skipper Thomas Lane of the Present Help, which was spare ship at the moment, sighted an object a mile distant to the eastward. As day was breaking, she was quickly marked for a German submarine – a huge one, with two big guns mounted on deck, one a 4-inch and one a 22-pounder. Nevertheless the Present Help, the Paramount, and the Majesty opened fire at once with their 6-pounders, not standing off, but closing their enemy, and continuing to close her under heavy fire, until they were hitting her with their own light guns. Even our history can hardly show a grander line of battle than those three tiny ships bearing down upon their great antagonist; and although U 48 did not fall to their fire, her surrender was due in the first instance to their determined onset. It was the Paramount who took and gave the first knocks; her searchlight was shot away, and in reply she succeeded in putting one of the enemy’s guns out of action. In the meantime, and none too soon, the Present Help had sent up the red rocket. It was seen by two other armed drifters, the Acceptable and the Feasible, who were less than 2 miles off, and by H.M.S. Gipsy, who was 4 miles away. Skipper Lee, of the Acceptable, immediately sang out “Action,” and both boats blazed away at 3,000 yards range, getting in at least one hit on the enemy’s conning-tower. At the same moment came the sound of the Gipsy’s I 2-pounder, as she rushed in at full speed.

The U-boat had started with an enormous and apparently overwhelming advantage of gun-power. She ought to have been a match, twice over, for all six of our little ships, but she was on dangerous ground, and the astounding resolution of the attack drove her off her course. In ten minutes the drifters had actually pushed her ashore on the Goodwin Sands – the Paramount had closed to 30 yards. Drake himself was hardly nearer to the Spanish galleons. Then came the Gipsy, equally determined. Her first two shots fell short, the third was doubtful, but after that she got on to the target, and the enemy’s bigger remaining gun was no match for her 12-pounder. After two hits with common pointed shell, she put on eight out of nine lyddite shells, smashed the German’s last gun and set him on fire forward. Thereupon the U-boat’s crew surrendered and jumped overboard.

It was now 7.20 and broad daylight. Lieutenant-Commander Frederick Robinson, of the Gipsy, gave the signal to cease fire, and the five drifters set to work to save their drowning enemies. The Paramount, who was nearest, got thirteen, the Feasible one, and the Acceptable two. The Gipsy’s whaler was got away, and her crew, under Lieutenant Gilbertson, R.N.R., tried for an hour to make headway against the sea, but could not go further than half a mile, the tide and weather being heavily against them. They brought back one dead man, and one prisoner in a very exhausted condition; afterwards they went off again and collected the prisoners from the other ships. Later came the procession hack to port – a quiet and unobtrusive return, but as glorious as any that the Goodwins have ever seen. Full rewards followed, and the due decorations for Skippers Thomas Lane, Edward Kemp, and Richard William Barker. But their greatest honour was already their own – they had commanded in victorious action his Majesty’s armed drifters the Present Help, the Paramount, and the Majesty.

ADHEMAR OF MONTEIL, bishop of Le Puy

A mitred Adhémar de Monteil carrying the Holy Lance in one of the battles of the First Crusade. Papal legate on crusade; close associate of Urban II 1095–6; travelled in Raymond of Toulouse’s Provençal army; as adept at military command as at prayer, diplomacy and reconciling the factious crusade leaders. Died 1 August 1098 at Antioch.

On 1 August 1098, the quarrels in the city were made worse when the pope’s legate, Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, died, most likely from typhoid. As the pope’s representative in a religious cause, Adhemar was the one leader in the army with uncontested authority. Without personal ambition, he had shown himself to be a man of excellent character, intelligent, shrewd, tactful, kindly and brave. A good tactician and unafraid in battle, he had carried the Holy Lance, for the army to keep in sight and remember. In his life and conduct, Bishop Adhemar tried hard to embody whatever Christian idealism existed on the crusade, advancing the claims of Christian charity and lessening the evils of Christian warfare. He was much loved by the poor pilgrims and the ordinary soldiers and they mourned for him:

By God’s will, the bishop of Le Puy departed from this world and, resting in peace, fell asleep in the Lord on the Feast of St Peter Ad Vincula. Then there was grief and sorrow and great mourning in the whole army of Christ, for the bishop was a helper of the poor and a counsellor of the rich. He used to keep the clergy in order and preach to the knights, warning them, ‘None of you can be saved unless you respect the poor and give them aid. They will not survive without you, but you cannot be saved without them. They ought every day to pray God to show mercy to you for your manifest sins, with which you daily offend Him. And therefore I beseech you, for love of the Lord, be kind to the poor and help them.’

In the past, historians have suggested that when Urban II preached the First Crusade at Clermont he actually expected only a few hundred knights to answer his call – that, in effect, the pope was caught entirely off guard by the tidal wave of enthusiasm that swept across Europe and, as a consequence, rapidly lost control of the shape and format of the expedition. In fact, a significant corpus of evidence suggests that he harboured fairly grand ambitions for this project and had a real sense of its potential scale and scope. Certainly in the months following the council of Piacenza (1-7 March 1095), where Urban first received the Byzantine appeal for aid, and perhaps even earlier, he developed the idea of a penitential armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem that might simultaneously bring military reinforcement to eastern Christendom and expand the sphere of papal influence. This is not to suggest that the crusade was the only thing on the pope’s mind, but it was a significant feature of his evolving reform agenda. At the same time, Urban began making preparations to ensure that his proposed expedition would meet with a positive response, tapping into the surviving network of fideles beati Petri established under Pope Gregory VII, including Matilda of Tuscany. It is striking how many of the prominent nobles who took the cross after Clermont were themselves fideles, or were connected to this group through marriage or family. Between his arrival in France in July 1095 and the start of the council of Clermont on 18 November, Urban visited a series of prominent monasteries, including his former house of Cluny. He also met and primed the two men whom he hoped would champion the crusading cause.

The first of these was Adhemar of Le Puy, a figure who would become the spiritual shepherd of the First Crusade. Born into a noble family, possibly that of the counts of Valentinois, Adhemar was appointed bishop of Le Puy, in the Auvergne region of south-eastern France, at some point between 1080 and 1087. He had also probably completed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before 1087. As a prominent Provencal bishop, Adhemar soon became an ally and associate of the region’s most powerful secular ruler, Raymond of Toulouse. The bishop, evidently a firm supporter of the Gregorian papacy, was chosen by Urban II to play a pivotal role in the forthcoming expedition. In August 1095, soon after his arrival in France, the pope journeyed to Le Puy, where he must have met Adhemar. Here, and perhaps on other occasions over the coming months, the two discussed Urban s crusading project, agreeing a plan to orchestrate its reception and prosecution. Unfortunately, no record of these conversations survives, but we can be virtually certain that they took place because the events that followed were clearly stage-managed. Adhemar of Le Puy duly attended the council of Clermont and listened intently to Urban s crusading sermon on 27 November. Then, as soon as the pope fell silent, Adhemar stepped forward to take the cross, becoming the first ever crusader. According to one eyewitness, after Urban had preached the campaign to the East:

The eyes of some were filled with tears, some were frightened and others argued about this matter. But among all at the council -and we all saw him – the bishop of Le Puy, a man of great repute and the highest nobility, went up to the lord pope with a smiling face and on bended knee begged and beseeched his permission and blessing to make the journey.

Bishop Adhemar had effectively been planted in the audience to ensure that the pope’s words met with a warm reaction. On the following day, it was announced that Adhemar would be the official papal representative, or legate, on the coming crusade. Urban himself later wrote that:

We appointed in our place as leader of this journey and labour our dearest son Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy. It follows that anyone who decides to go on this journey should obey his orders as though they were our own and should be entirely subject to his power to loose and bind’ in any decisions that appear to concern this business.

The pope had chosen Adhemar to lead the expedition to Jerusalem, endowing him with absolute spiritual authority over the crusaders. In this position, the bishop of Le Puy proved to be a skilled and patient conciliator, a valuable voice for reason and a staunch advocate of Urban’s policy of detente with the Greek Church of Byzantium. But, although the pope may have envisaged the crusade as a pious armed pilgrimage, he must have known that to succeed the expedition would still require practical military direction and inspirational generalship. Adhemar possessed some talent as a strategist, he may even have had a degree of skill as a military leader, but, with Church law technically forbidding him from actually fighting in battle, the bishop could never truly fulfil the role of overall commander-in-chief of the crusade.



The Survivability of Tanks and Crews

This latest Soviet heavy tank was adopted and then deployed during the Winter War with Finland in 1940. Designated the KV-1, it was ordered into production in two variants. The first was the KV-1A, which was armed initially with a long-barrelled 76.2mm (3in) F32 main gun and 111 rounds of ammunition, substituted for the short-barrelled 76.2mm L-11 gun of early testing prototypes. The second model was the KV-2, a combination of the KV-1 hull, suspension and chassis with a huge turret mounting a 152mm (6in) howitzer.

During the course of World War II, no fewer than 11 variants of the original PzKpfw III production model, Ausf E, were built. Variants A to D were prototype models constructed in 1937 and 1938. With A to C the torsion-bar suspension was refined and with D and F, heavier armour, a higher-performance engine and an improved commander’s cupola were installed.

The interior of the PzKpfw III was spacious compared to other contemporary tanks, although space was diminished as larger main weapons were installed in succeeding variants. The driver was positioned forward and to the left in the hull, while a radio operator/machine-gunner was seated to the right. Three crewmen – the commander, gunner and loader – occupied the turret, which was centred on the hull. The 12-cylinder Maybach HL 120 TRM petrol engine developed 224 kilowatts (300hp) and was positioned at the rear. The torsion bar suspension had six road wheels with a frontal drive sprocket, rear idler and three return rollers.

There are four basic principles for ensuring the survival of a tank on the battlefield:

  1. Avoid detection.
  2. It the tank is detected, avoid being hit.
  3. If the tank takes a hit, prevent penetration of the armour.
  4. If the armour is penetrated, ensure survival of the crew and prevent the tank suffering fatal damage.

The first two principles relate to the tank’s active protection, and the latter two to its passive protection. We’ll take a look at them in order:

  1. To remain undetected, it is necessary first of all to decrease the noticeability of the tank to a minimum as already discussed.
  2. It is possible to avoid being hit by minimizing the area of the tank that is exposed to the enemy and the amount of time that the enemy can see it. This can be achieved:
  3. a) by skilful use of the terrain and cover;
  4. b) by artful manoeuvring so as not to expose the tank’s side, which presents a significantly larger area and, as a rule, weaker armour to enemy fire, than its front;
  5. c) by maintaining a high speed on the battlefield; or
  6. d) by decreasing the tank’s dimensions.

The tank’s technical features affect the last two points, primarily its power-to-weight ratio and the quality of the transmission and suspension, as well as its height, width and length. However, to a much larger degree everything depends on the crews themselves, their knowledge of combat tactics and their ability to master the handling of their combat vehicle. If decreasing the tank’s dimensions can lessen the probability of a hit on the tank by a matter of percentages, then the masterful exploitation of the terrain and cover combined with intelligent and rapid manoeuvring on the battlefield can reduce it by many times more.

  1. Only a tank’s designed protection can prevent a shell that hits it from penetrating into its interior. (We have previously discussed the armour protection on the German and Soviet tanks.)
  2. Even if the armour is penetrated by a shell, that still doesn’t necessarily mean the tank’s total demise.

We’ll discuss this in more detail. For a start, we’ll examine the main damaging factors of anti-tank ammunition. Primary among them in the period of our concern were the full-calibre, armour-piercing shells, the rear cavities of which were filled with small, but sufficiently powerful bursting charges. In addition to them, full-calibre solid armour-piercing shells – or so called solid shot shells – were also used. Armour-piercing shells penetrate armour due to their high kinetic energy. If it is sufficient, then as a rule, a shear plugging of the armour occurs, the diameter of which is approximately equal to the calibre of the shell itself. The after-penetration effect of an armour-piercing shell with a bursting charge depends on its remaining kinetic energy and the blast effect of its explosive. A solid shot has no blast effect, naturally, so its after-penetration effect is perceptibly lower than that of a shell with a bursting charge. However, it has greater kinetic energy, and accordingly better armour penetrating capability due to its larger inherent weight, because the specific density of an explosive charge is less than that of the metal of the shell’s body.

There are also other factors that enhance the potency of a shell’s effects. For example, often as a result of their penetration, so-called secondary fragments are often created within the tank. These are various pieces of the armour, parts and components that form as a result of their destruction, as well as unanchored objects. All this gets thrown around within the tank as a result of the influence of the shell’s kinetic energy and the armour plug punched out by it, as well as the blast effect of an armour-piercing shell with a bursting charge. The secondary fragments multiply and intensify the damage inside the tank, and also substantially increase the probability of injuring or killing the crew, so efforts are made to reduce their number to a minimum. Ideally, the result of the penetration of armour would be the appearance of one single plug that hasn’t been fragmented. However, in practice, fragments that have been chipped away or broken off from the armour surrounding the shell’s penetration frequently add to it. In order to prevent their creation, there are efforts to make the armour, especially its inner surface, as malleable as possible without sacrificing its resistance against shells. Other steps to decrease the severity of the consequences of the armour’s penetration include eliminating unsecured items within the tank and increasing the strength of both elements of the tank’s design and its parts and components, which when being destroyed turn into lethal secondary fragments. This is particularly important for the fighting compartment and driver’s compartment, where the tankers are positioned.

It is necessary to add that even when shells strike a tank yet fail to penetrate the armour, they sometimes nevertheless do damage to its crew and mechanisms. The main reason for this is the insufficient malleability of the interior surface of the tank’s armour, which as a result of the enormous stress caused by an impact that wasn’t able to penetrate the armour leads to spalling, the fragments of which are capable of not only damaging the tank, but also causing serious wounds and injuries to the tankers. This was typical of the T-34’s armour, especially of its cast turrets in the first half of the war. Heat treated for high hardness to its entire depth, it was prone to create secondary fragments. Remnants of moulding compound and burn-on from the casting process that haven’t been cleaned from the rear surface, surface defects of the rolled armour and dross from the welding seams are further sources of increased danger to the tankers. Blown free by the impact of a shell against the armour, they inflict painful wounds to a tanker’s exposed skin or the skin under their summer uniforms, and can even blind them.

As a result of the process of penetrating the armour and the conversion of the shell’s kinetic energy into heat during the process, the shell and the plug of armour (or its fragments, if it breaks into pieces) become heated to extremely high temperatures and acquire igniting capabilities. In the case of an armour-piercing explosive shell, the incandescent gases created during the explosion of the charge spread with extremely high velocity and pressure and add to their effect. Within any tank there are always items that are flammable. First and foremost there are the fuel and lubricants and the propellant charges of the stored ammunition, but there are also various rubber and plastic articles, paint, rags and the uniforms of the tankers, especially the winter uniforms. The very worst consequence of a fire in a tank is the detonation of the on-board ammunition and fuel storage, which results in the tank’s complete destruction. However, even without this, a burned-out tank becomes totally disabled and must be written off, since as a result of the lengthy effects of high temperatures during a strong fire, the tank armour loses its hardness and thus its protective qualities. In addition, because of the uneven heating of the burning tank, the hull and turret become irreversibly deformed, which is virtually impossible to correct. There is no sense in repairing such a tank, because it is much cheaper and faster to build a new one.

In the designs of their tanks the Germans took adequate measures in order to prevent fires. First of all, this included isolating the fuel tanks from the crew members. For example, the Pz.Kpfw.III’s fuel tank was in the engine compartment, separated from the fighting compartment by an internal firewall. Another such wall separated the fuel tank from the engine. On the Pz.Kpfw.IV the fuel tanks were located beneath the floor of the fighting compartment and were additionally protected by fireproof panels above them. Moreover, this section of the tank is usually shielded by folds in the ground when in combat and a direct hit on it is less likely.

In the Soviet tanks the situation with fire safety was much worse. For example, in the vehicles of the BT series, the fuel tanks were positioned between double walls in the area of the engine compartment and occupied a significant portion of the hull’s side profile. This created an unacceptably high likelihood that a shell hit would result in the ignition of at least one of them. In the T-34 that replaced them, the four fuel tanks (two upper with a capacity of 105 litres each and two lower with a capacity of 55 litres each) were placed right in the middle of the fighting compartment. Two more T-34 fuel tanks with a total volume of 145 litres were located in its transmission compartment. All three fuel tanks of the KV tank, with a total capacity of 600–615 litres, were also positioned along the sides of its fighting compartment.

The decision to place them in such an unsuitable place was taken as a result of the serious misjudgment of the combustion hazard of diesel fuel, although its flammability is significantly lower compared to petrol. The physics of this natural occurrence is rather simple. The fuel itself doesn’t burn, only its fumes do, thus the flammability of any fuel is characterized by two basic parameters:

  1. The flash point: the lowest temperature of fuel at which its fumes create a mixture with the oxygen in the surrounding air, which combusts when it makes contact with an ignition source. Sustained burning in the process doesn’t yet arise because of the insufficient rate of fume production. On average, the flash point of various sorts of petrol is within the limits of –30 to –45º C., while that of diesel fuels is between 30º C. and 80º C.
  2. The ignition point: the lowest temperature of fuel at which its fumes are produced at a sufficient rate to burn steadily after ignition from an external source. The ignition point of petrol is just 1–5º C higher than its flash point, while the analagous difference for diesel fuel is between 30 and 35º C.

Thus petrol easily ignites at a temperature above –25º C, while for diesel fuel the suitable conditions for ignition are created at much higher temperatures – at least 60º C., and for some types more than 115º C. These figures clearly explain why, when bringing a flaming torch close to an open container of petrol, it immediately ignites, but when rapidly plunging the same torch into a container of diesel fuel, the flame is extinguished. In the latter case, the torch simply doesn’t have time to heat up the diesel fuel to its flash point and dies when submerged in it because of the lack of oxygen necessary for burning. However, a hit by a shell or secondary fragments in a fuel tank filled with diesel fuel creates completely different conditions. Let’s analyse the main possible scenarios of this event:

  1. When solid shot, shell fragments or pieces of armour strike a full fuel tank, they penetrate and create a fuel spillage. In the process, a fire rarely results because the solid shot, high-speed fragments and pieces which pass right through the penetrated fuel tank simply don’t have enough time to ignite the fuel over the very short time it takes to pass through it. In this case the fuel tank even serves as a supplementary defence against fragments and pieces that lack the energy to penetrate right through it. They also, as a rule, aren’t capable of igniting the fuel.
  2. When an armour-piercing shell with a bursting charge strikes a full fuel tank and explodes either inside it or in direct proximity to it, the result is the total destruction of the fuel tank and the splashing of the fuel contained in it with its subsequent ignition.
  3. When a solid shot, shell fragments or pieces of armour strike a fuel tank that is only partially full of fuel, they penetrate it. If the fuel tank is penetrated above the fuel level, but there are few fumes, then the solid shot, fragments or pieces pass completely through it and don’t cause a fire. If the penetration is below the fuel level, then the likelihood of fire depends on the correlation between the amount of fuel left in the tank and the amount of thermal energy transmitted to the fuel by the fragments or pieces. A small quantity of fuel in these conditions may ignite.
  4. The most catastrophic consequences result when an armour-piercing shell with a bursting charge explodes in a fuel tank that is only 10–25 per cent full of fuel. In this instance an aerosol mixture of tiny drops of fuel and air forms, adding to the fuel fumes already within the fuel tank. The requirements for generating such a lethal cocktail are high temperature and abruptly increasing pressure created by the bursting charge’s blast effect. In order to trigger the mechanism of detonation of the mixture, this charge must be equivalent in power to not less than 50–100 grams of TNT, which at that time corresponded to an armour-piercing shell with a bursting charge with a calibre of 75mm and higher. The capacity of the fuel tank for creating the optimal conditions of mixing for detonation should amount to no less than 100 litres. In fuel tanks with a volume of 30–50 litres, there is no noticeable amplification of the shell’s blast effect. However, in the event that it happens, the detonation of the fuel tank increases the blast effect of the shell that explodes in it by two to four times. Thus, the explosion of a T-34 fuel tank, caused by the hit of a 76mm BP-350A armour-piercing shell, which contained 155 grams of TNT, was equivalent to the force of the explosion of a 152mm BP-540B armour-piercing shell with an explosive charge of 480 grams of TNT. As a result of a fuel tank’s explosion, the armour plate closest to its origin would be ripped from the hull along a welding seam and blown to one side. The tank’s turret, which usually gets blown off by detonation of the on-board ammunition, would remain in place in this event. Even the shells in the tank, despite the detonation taking place next to them, would often be left in their stowage racks. A conflagration virtually never resulted, and moreover, the fire that had already started would instantly die out. This is easily explainable: the powerful shock wave created by the fuel tank’s explosion extinguished the flame, and the available oxygen within the tank would instantly and completely burn out. A diesel fuel tank itself after a detonation inside it would disappear without a trace, having been blown apart into dust. Yet the explosion of an analogous fuel tank with petrol inside it was approximately 1.5 times weaker and wouldn’t cause the destruction of the tank hull’s welding seams. After the Germans introduced the use of shaped charge shells at the front at the end of 1941, cases of explosions of the T-34’s fuel tanks, which were filled only 25 per cent or less with fuel, began to be noticed from the effects of the explosive jet. However, only the diesel fumes contained in the fuel tank itself would detonate in this case. The resulting effects were equivalent to a charge of 30–50 grams of TNT, which would kill the entire crew, but the tank’s body would remain intact.

As is clear from the description of the dynamics of a fuel tank’s detonation and its consequences, all this fully corresponds to the process that occurs during the triggering of a contemporary fuel-air explosive, which is sometimes called a ‘vacuum bomb’. The speed of detonation approaches 1,500–1,800 metres per second, and the pressure up to 15–20 atmospheres. In the process, the mass velocity of the gas stream moving in the direction of the blast wave achieves 600–800 metres per second.6 It was this incredible force that tore apart the full strength penetration welded seams of the T-34’s hull. Tankers inside these tanks in such cases were killed instantly, with scarcely any time to sense anything.

Here it must be added that the Wehrmacht’s 37mm, 47mm and 50mm armour-piercing shells had insufficient explosive effect in order to cause the detonation of the T-34’s fuel tank. At the beginning of the war, really only the shells of the 88mm Flak 18/36/37 gun could trigger it, as could the 105mm K.18 cannon, which wasn’t encountered so frequently at the front line. However, the penetration of the T-34’s armour by guns with a calibre of up to 50mm also frequently had tragic consequences for their crews. A hit by a small calibre armour-piercing shell with a bursting charge on one of the fuel tanks in the fighting compartment, as a rule, meant the immediate ignition of the resulting spilled and spattered fuel directly among the tankers. In such circumstances, their chances of survival were very low. However, this isn’t all. The probability of the outbreak of a fire in the T-34’s fighting compartment also substantially increased as a consequence of the constant leakage of fuel from the fuel tanks positioned there. Most often the leak didn’t come from the tanks themselves, but from the rubber-canvas hoses and fittings that connected them. As a result, there were puddles of fuel on the floor of the fighting compartment, which easily ignited both from shells that penetrated the armour, as well as from the red-hot secondary fragments that resulted from the penetration. Moreover, ammunition boxes were stowed on the floor of the T-34’s fighting compartment, and the consequences of their ignition are not difficult to predict. However, this was not the worst scenario for the crews. The diesel fuel that seeped from the fuel tanks soaked into the tankers’ uniforms, which also became impregnated with fuel and lubricants during refuelling, repairs and maintenance, and when wiping the grease from shells while loading them aboard the tank, etc. Such cloth ignited very easily and it was virtually impossible to smother the flames. Burning diesel fuel caused much more serious burns to the men than did petrol. When petrol gets on the skin, first of all its fumes burn, so tankers who bailed out of burning tanks with petrol engines not infrequently got away with comparatively light burns. Blazing diesel fuel, unlike petrol, adheres tightly to the skin, burns much more slowly than petrol, and leaves deep burns on the body right up to the point of charring. It is no coincidence that special incendiary mixtures like napalm, which are intended to stick where they land, burn for a long time and at the same time reach a very high temperature, are made from heavy types of fuel, including diesel fuel.

A fire in the tank’s fighting compartment and driver’s compartment leads to an agonizing death for the men who aren’t able to bail out in time. The chances of saving the tankers’ lives increase if they have the ability to quickly abandon their burning vehicle. In the German tanks of the period under discussion, each crew member had his own hatch, so according to statistics, in the case of a tank catching fire, often the entire crew was able to get out, and in the worst case just two of the five crew members would not be able to escape. The German design engineers went so far as to weaken the sides of the turrets of their medium tanks by adding hatches to them, in order to give the crews a better chance in an urgent evacuation. However, the main point was that the Werhmacht’s tankers, in the majority of cases, had sufficient time to bail out of their tanks, because fires usually began in the engine compartment and didn’t always spread to the fighting compartment, and if they did, they didn’t do so immediately. For the T-34, the statistics were much worse. The fires in them often started in the fighting compartment because of the fuel tanks located there. From a burning tank, in the worst case no one managed to bail out, and in the best case, two might have been able to save themselves, usually the tank commander and driver-mechanic.

In the T-34 the driver-mechanic had the best chance of survival. In the first place, he was seated rather low and was partially screened from enemy shells by folds in the ground. Secondly, he was protected by a 45mm thick frontal hull plate, sloped at an angle of 60º from vertical, which was equivalent to 90mm of armour. The opening for the driver-mechanic’s hatch weakened the frontal armour, but on the other hand he was able to clamber quickly out of the tank through it. The radio operator and loader, however, had to wait for their turn to bail out, because they didn’t have their own hatches; wait, even when they were just seconds away from an agonizing death or a maiming injury from flames. The situation was no better with evacuation from the KV tanks, which had just two hatches for the five or six crew members. Moreover, the hatches sometimes became jammed because of the deformation of the hull or turret as a result of a shell’s hit. Therefore some tankers before a battle didn’t fasten the hatches, but instead lashed their covers with straps from within the tank into partially open positions. Hatches in this case loudly clapped when on the march and permitted shrapnel to enter the tank, but on the other hand the crew had a better chance to escape. Emergency escape hatches on the bottom of the vehicle appeared on Soviet tanks shortly before the war, and the BT-7M received them first. However, they weren’t suitable for an emergency abandonment of the tank. For example, in order to open the emergency hatch on the T-34, first six hex nuts had to be loosened, followed by the disengagement of six bolt bars, before the safety catch could be released, and only then could the hatch cover be dropped free. All this took on average 2.5 minutes, and around another minute was required for a trained crew of four men to exit through the emergency hatch. Hardly anyone could survive in a burning tank that long … Moreover, in the event of a fire in the tank’s work space, it was frequently impossible to use the emergency hatch – the burning diesel fuel spreading across the floor prevented this.

There is a widespread opinion that tanks equipped with petrol engines are much more flammable than tanks with diesel engines. As can be shown from the facts presented above, the fire hazard of combat vehicles to a much greater extent depends on their design and layout, rather than their engine type and fuel type. Therefore it is not appropriate to call, as often happens, all of the Soviet pre-war tanks that had petrol engines fire hazards. We have already looked at a case from the Winter War with Finland, when of the 482 cases of combat damage and mechanical failures of the T-28 tank, only 30 led to a fire that destroyed it. Such an impressive statistic convincingly demonstrates that the sensible positioning of the fuel tanks and the effective fire suppression system that equipped the T-28 successfully resulted in minimizing the number of cases of fatal outbreaks of fire in this tank after the penetration of its armour – despite its use of petrol as fuel.

Interestingly, the fire extinguishers on the Soviet tanks of that time were themselves dangerous for the tankers. The point is that they were filled with tetrachloride, which, under the effect of high temperatures, emits a suffocating gas – phosgene. So when using them inside a closed tank, it was required to don gas masks first.

The question is often discussed: why were the Wehrmacht’s tanks equipped with petrol engines? After all, the German engineers had ample experience with successfully designing various diesel engines, intended to equip automobiles, tractors, locomotives, ships and even aircraft. The point is that during the Second World War, there was an acute shortage of diesel fuel in Germany. Unlike petrol, the Germans were unable to synthesize it from coal, and they had plainly insufficient resources of natural oil available. The navy became the primary consumer of diesel fuel in the Third Reich. Many of its combat ships were equipped with diesel engines, including the so-called ‘pocket battleships.’ The German submarine force used an especially large number of diesel engines. It was in fact the deficit of diesel fuel that became the main reason for the use of petrol engines on the German panzers during the Second World War. There were also other reasons, however. For the ground forces, they filled not only tanks with petrol, but also prime movers, lorries, cars and motorcycles, which significantly simplified the system of the Wehrmacht’s supply with fuel. Moreover, a petrol engine has a number of considerable advantages over a diesel engine:

  1. The same power is attainable with lower weight and size;
  2. A larger operating range of rpms;
  3. Superior acceleration;
  4. Simplicity and low cost of production;
  5. Ease of start at lower temperatures.

Its main shortcoming in comparison with diesel is its lower efficiency. Because of it, tanks equipped with petrol engines, as a rule, have a relatively short range between refills. However, back then, the Germans didn’t consider this a significant disadvantage.

Posted in AFV

Louis XIV: The French Army I

The Marquis de Louvois, Né François Le Tellier (1641-1691) is not only one of the most important figures in French military history, but also in that of Western Europe; in addition to forging the weapon which enabled Louis XIV to carry out his policy of calculated aggression, he created the type of army whose tactical and administrative methods remained virtually unchanged until the coming of the mechanical age. He found himself confronted with a feudal army and transformed it into a modem one.

When Louis XIV took over the reins of government in 1661 it was merely a polite fiction to speak of the land forces as “the King’s army”; they were nothing of the sort. It was an army in which the King was, at best, one of the principal shareholders, and in the control of which the traditional status of the Crown gave him a casting vote. But as the majority of the regiments were not his property, his control was by no means absolute, and that of his War Secretary was practically non-existent. The armies which under Louis XIII and Mazarin had fought Spain, were a hard-bitten, hard-fighting, undisciplined, ill-fed, badly paid rabble, held together by the prestige of famous generals and colonels, living by loot and extortion, things of horror and terror to the civilian population, friend and foe alike. Such discipline as existed was maintained by sudden wholesale hangings, alternating with long periods of absolute licence in which even officers’ persons and property were not secure against the attacks of their own men. The officers, generally speaking, were as insubordinate as the troops, and once an army had been got together and sent to the front, the control of the central government often practically ceased to operate; indeed the government’s most obvious and urgent care was to get the army out of the metropolitan provinces with all possible speed, before their presence raised a revolt.

Hand in hand with indiscipline went corruption; it was the golden age for the military peculator, and there were few officers who did not see in a campaign a heaven-sent opportunity to reimburse themselves for their considerable capital outlay. Nor was there any efficient method of checking and punishing the officer’s dishonesty, for he was not in our sense of the word a King’s officer at all; he was an investor, who had bought a regiment or company as another man might buy a farm or a block of Paris municipal bonds; and ratification of purchase, and the subsequent grant of a commission lay not in the hands of the King but in those of two military viziers, the Colonel-General of Cavalry and the Colonel-General of Infantry, both of whom, by the way, had as likely as not bought their posts, and were now recouping themselves by collecting a brokerage on the purchase and sale of commissions. Like stock exchange values, the prices of commissions fluctuated considerably; only a very few corps d’élite were maintained in peacetime; so when peace was in the air, the price of all commissions fell heavily, while the market value of those in the new regiments fell to nothing. For the state admitted no obligation to recompense the holders of commissions in disbanded regiments; as on the stock exchange, the rule was caveat emptor. It would have been odd in the circumstances if every officer had not joined his unit determined to make hay whilst the sun shone; for his expenses were high, and the legitimate return on his investment low. For instance, in 1689 companies in the French guards were selling at rather over 3,000 louis d’or; it is true that a guards captain held the honorary rank of colonel in the army, and his pay seems to have been 12 louis d’or odd a month, as against some 4 louis d’or in the line infantry. And there was the further advantage that when army funds ran out, as they had a habit of doing in that unorganized age, it was the guards who got any money that was going, while the line was left to live as best it could; or in other words at the expense of the district in which they were quartered. But even when we take into consideration the relative security of tenure of the guards officer, a return of under five per cent on a highly speculative investment is a poor one.

Still, it was not pay but peculation that formed the bulk of an officer’s income, and his opportunities for making a little on the side, as the Americans say, were many. To begin with, it must be understood that the state did no recruiting; that was the business of the captain. The state paid the soldier’s pay, more or less irregularly, into the hands of the captain, who, in return for a recognized percentage of the sum received, and his recruiting grant, undertook to enlist, equip, clothe and feed say a hundred men. But though he received a fixed rate of pay per man, he in fact made the most advantageous bargain he could with his recruits, and when he had enlisted a hundred of them, marched his company to the assembly quarter to be inspected by the commissioner of war. For each recruit on parade he received about 2 louis d’or in the infantry, and nearly 10 louis d’or in the cavalry; and there appears to have been no check that the company which joined the regiment was of the same strength as that which had appeared on the muster parade. An arrangement better calculated to promote fraud could hardly be devised, and most officers took full advantage of it; as late as 1668 Luxembourg reports that if swindles were perpetrated by a few officers, he could take disciplinary action against them, but that he has in fact hardly one honest officer serving under him. And Rochefort, in the same year, ends a report on the same subject with the airy consolation that it is an evil which time alone can cure.

An obvious fraud was that the company commander could and did retain more than his legal percentage of the pay, and, in extreme cases, pocketed the lot. But this rather elementary swindle had the inconvenient result that the company usually deserted en masse, and even a seventeenth-century colonel was apt to object to a company whose captain was its only member. So the more intelligent contented themselves with the profit to be made out of passe volants. Under this system, the captain who was receiving pay for a hundred men, would in fact pay and maintain perhaps sixty, annexing the money of the imaginary forty. Inspections were few and far between, commissioners of war were conveniently blind, and their visits well-advertised beforehand; on the day of the muster a collection of valets, grooms, and beggars would be issued with musket and bandolier, and would shuffle along behind the real soldiers. The commissioner would sign the muster roll, the stage soldiers would be dismissed with a pourboire, and the captain could put the whole matter out of his mind for another twelve months. If word came down that the commissioner was of a tiresomely observant and inquisitive disposition, it was merely necessary to give what Pooh-Bah calls a touch of artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative by borrowing forty real soldiers from the nearest regiment; for as there were no uniforms, there was nothing to expose the deception which was being practised, especially as all the men on parade were obviously soldiers. The fraud was not, one must admit, peculiar to the French service; Montecuculi, the Austrian commander, in his memoirs, complains bitterly of it, and advises that the captain who employs passe volants be “chastiz’d with the utmost rigour”: but he is silent as to the means to be employed.

There is some excuse for the juniors in that the examples set in the most exalted circles were not calculated to promote professional integrity; in 1641 that curious ruling prince, Charles IV de Lorraine, found himself short of cavalry horses, and without means of buying any. Nothing daunted, he raised the cry of the Church in danger, convened his clergy, and made them an eloquent address in the principal church of his capital. While he was so doing, his troopers stole all the horses of the assembled ecclesiastics. Again, the raising of contributions in enemy territory was a legal and normal method of subsisting an army in wartime; but it was notorious that many generals remitted to the War Office much smaller sums than they had extorted from the occupied area. And, of course, where the general was known to be feathering his nest, naturally each collecting officer did likewise.

The military aspect of the passe volant abuse was an even more serious matter than the financial, for it meant that a commander took the field in complete ignorance of the effective strength of his army. To be sure, he had the daily strength returns; but what percentage of the men inscribed thereon really existed? Was his army ten, twenty, or even forty per cent below its nominal strength? It follows from this state of affairs that we must be very cautious in accepting battle casualty figures in the earlier part of the century; for the captain whose company had a nominal strength of a hundred and an effective strength of seventy would undoubtedly, if he could manage to get his men under fire at all, report that he had lost thirty men in action when perhaps he had had no losses at all.

Sometimes the ingenious company commander would turn his attention from his men to their equipment; two company commanders would decide that in peacetime, with a little management, one set of muskets and bandoliers would suffice for both companies. They would then sell one set for their common profit, lending each other what was necessary for muster days. Then too, some little assistance could be got from the use of the soldiers’ rations in garrisons where these were provided by the King and not the company commander; a pack of hounds, for instance, was found to thrive on soldiers’ biscuit. And, of course, the immediate consequences of such a theft was a further outbreak of the chronic evils of desertion and looting. In the cavalry, the wide-awake officer found that there were pickings to be made out of the forage ration; it was a simple matter to loot corn for the horses from the countryside, and sell the King’s corn to the commissary, who in turn sold it to the army bread contractor. Well may a contemporary complain that the ill-conduct of the officers “frequently produces very fatal inconveniences.”

This glimpse of the old-style army will give us some idea of the colossal problem which confronted Louvois in 1665, when at the age of twenty-four he threw himself into the work of reforming the service. To the task he brought an energy, a clear-sightedness, and a brutality which was to make him the most feared and hated man in France, but, on the whole, the greatest administrator of the reign, not even excepting Colbert. For he had behind him the enthusiastic backing of Louis XIV, upon which his rival could never absolutely depend.

Louvois was not the man to batter his head against a brick wall: he had a clear perception of the possible and the impossible, and he wasted no time in attempting to abolish the sale of commissions. But he determined that the King should in future have some say in the conditions of purchase and the qualifications of the purchaser.

At the very outset he was cheered by an unexpected piece of good fortune: the Duc d’Epemon, Colonel-General of the Infantry, died in 1661, and Louis himself assumed the vacant post of colonel-general. Henceforth, every infantry officer thus held his commission direct from the King, and that document was countersigned by the Secretary of War. To be sure, the Colonel-General of Cavalry and the Grand Master of the Artillery still remained in office, but their positions had been fatally weakened by the disappearance of their colleague, and Louvois, sapping and mining with unwearied patience, lived, to see their functions become purely decorative. Though, this being the ancien régime, they of course never lost the salaries paid them for the duties they had ceased to perform. Louis XIV took his colonel-general’s functions seriously, and indeed, as was his wont, rather lost sight of the wood for the trees. The officer’s confidential report may be said to have come into existence with his assurance to Coligny in 1664 that no one shall be informed of the tenor of Coligny’s remarks on the officers under his command: and by 1673 such reports are common, and have about them a very modern ring. “D’Espagne,” writes Luxembourg in that year, “is a brave man, and admirably fitted for a subordinate position; but he has not the qualifications to fit him for an independent command.” This is very well, but we must feel that the King is usurping the functions of his subordinate commanders when in 1676 he not only selects the town major of Aire, but winds up by saying, “for the minor appointments I wish to have men from the Guards: but I have not yet chosen them.”

Having, through the King, secured control of the infantry officers, Louvois’ next care was to attack the passe volant evil, and simultaneously with it, the general financial laxity which pervaded the whole army. Purchase of commissions in the Gardes du Corps he did succeed in suppressing, but that very minor reform of a fundamentally vicious system was all that he attempted directly. Indirectly, he tried to combat the evil by ensuring that, all other things being equal, the purchase of regiments and companies should be reserved for wealthy men who would have little temptation to indulge in petty larceny, while at the same time opening a new ladder of promotion to the keen but needy officer. The army, as he found it, knew no other ranks than ensign or comet, lieutenant, captain, colonel, and general, all of which, up to and including a colonel, were venal posts. In modern language Louvois did not introduce any new ranks, but instituted two important and unpurchaseable appointments, those of lieutenant-colonel and major, filled by merit alone, and qualifying the holder for promotion to die rank of general officer. It was, and was intended to be, a severe blow to the members of the old regimental hierarchy; the lieutenant-colonel, technically the colonel’s deputy, tended more and more as time went on to exclude the colonel from any detailed control of the regiment, and to place him in something like the position now occupied by the colonel of a regiment in our present-day army. The major held no command, but was responsible for the supervision of the officers, discipline, training, and administration; he was, as we should say, adjutant and quartermaster combined, and was assisted by one or more subalterns called aide-majors. In 1667 and 1668 came a further innovation, the introduction of brigadiers, whose functions then were the same as today; but to become a brigadier it was not necessary to have been a colonel, and a colonel who became a brigadier did not relinquish the command of his regiment.

With the introduction of brigadiers, the two ladders to the top of the tree are now complete: ensign, lieutenant, captain, colonel, brigadier, for the wealthy man; ensign or the ranks, aide-major, major, lieutenant-colonel, brigadier, for the needy. For it is a great mistake to imagine that the officer of the second half of the seventeenth century was invariably a noble who had entered direct by purchase; Maréchal de Catinat was not noble, and Maréchal Fabert was a ranker, to name only two exceptions.

In 1674 one Sergeant Lafleur of the Regiment de Dampierre, is mentioned for distinguished service in Holland; whereupon Louis XIV writes to his general, “His Majesty desires that Lafleur be promoted lieutenant in the Regiment de Dampierre when there is a vacancy, and that in the meantime he be given a gratuity of five hundred livres.” When St. Simon is serving in the Royal Roussillon Regiment in 1693, he mentions Boissieux, comet of his troop, who “had started life as a swineherd, and had raised himself by sheer merit; though old, he had never learned to read or write. He was one of the best scouts in the army….We all liked and respected him, as did our Generals.” I quote the case, not as being in any way exceptional, but because St. Simon is the speaker; had the case been exceptional, the waspish little duke would have spoken very differently about the obligation to treat such a man as a brother officer. As a matter of fact, the number of rankers one meets with in Louis XIV’s armies is remarkable, and it would not surprise me to hear that the class was commoner in the French service in 1690 than the British in 1890. And promotion by the poor man’s road was very far from being a War Office dead letter, one of the King’s pious hopes; when in 1684 Louis created twenty-seven new infantry regiments, there was not one of the new colonels who had not been either a major or a lieutenant-colonel.

But it is time to turn to Louvois’ struggles with the passe volant, a struggle in which he was ultimately successful, because, unlike so many of his fellow bureaucrats, he did not content himself with issuing orders, but proceeded to enforce them. His first step was to cut off the supply of soldier impersonators; in 1663 a detected passe volant was flogged: in 1665 flogged and branded: and in 1667 the crime was made a capital one. Next it was the turn of the officer. Any soldier denouncing his captain for using passe volants is to be given his discharge and a gratuity of three hundred livres, provided by the stopping of that sum from the captain’s pay: and in addition, the offending officer is to undergo at least a month’s imprisonment. Next the heavy hand descends on the dishonest commissioner of war; in 1671 Louvois catches Commissioner Aubert at Dunkirk drawing a salary from the garrison for giving officers notice of his muster days—and Dunkirk knew Commissioner Aubert no longer. Belleisle was a distant garrison where a man might reasonably have hoped to live out his days as in the good old pre-Louvois times: but the rage for innovation does not spare even Belleisle. There the governor, instead of discharging a sergeant who has denounced a passe volant, has put him in arrest, and the news reaches the War Office. A month’s forfeiture of pay for the governor, three months’ for the town major, and cashiering for the captain says Louvois; adding that this is only an instalment of what the three may expect if the delator has any complaints to make about his treatment. And let them beware of showing any resentment against the commissioner who has reported the case. Here, by the way, we may correct a common impression that Louvois put the French army into uniform with the double object of checking desertion and destroying the passe volant Actually, Louvois rather disapproved of the idea, and so far from uniforms being “introduced,” they came into use at the whim of individual colonels, except in the case of the Maison du Roi, which had been clothed uniformly since 1664. It was not until 1682 that uniform was made compulsory, and even then, it was for officers only.

Whilst still keeping a vigilant eye on the administrative side of the service, Louvois now turned his attention to the hitherto almost totally neglected matter of training, particularly officers’ training. The officer, not only undisciplined but ignorant, did not take kindly to Louvois’ effort to improve the standard of his professional competence, but the young War Minister was both swift and merciless in his dealings with those who opposed him. Incompetents learned to their horror that their continued employment was conditional on the efficiency of their units; useless colonels and captains were tormented into selling out, and rebellious Marshals of France were sent to their estates to meditate on the unwisdom of trying to stem the tide of reform. Martinet and Fourilles, two of Louvois’ discoveries, were made, the one Inspector of Infantry, the other of Cavalry, and we may guess at the nature of their performance from the name which Martinet has bequeathed to our own military vocabulary; we have no difficulty in believing that he was “a man of rare merit and firmness.”

The inefficiency and insouciance of the officer of the earlier part of the century was largely due to the precarious tenure of his employment, and it seems to have been Louis XIV himself who, in seeking for a palliative to the situation, hit upon an elementary version of the modern army’s reserve system. Speaking of the demobilization of 1659, he says of the disbanded officers:

“Some of them had no means of subsistence but their profession, and I pitied their case…I put a number of them into the Musketeers, and formed the Dauphin’s Light Horse to absorb others, giving them in addition to their pay, pensions calculated on their past service…thereby having the means available to mobilize new units in next to no time.”

The Army,” in W.H. Lewis’s book “The Splendid Century,”

Louis XIV: The French Army II

It was the existence of this reserve of ex-officers which enabled France to mobilize so swiftly in 1666, and when peace came in 1668, the officers alleged to have been demobilized were in fact secretly absorbed into the permanent formations.

But it was on the young entry into the officers’ corps that Louvois pinned his faith, and with them he spared no pains. In 1682 the old casual system of attaching a youngster to a regiment to pick up what he could (usually bad habits) whilst the family lawyer haggled over a company for him, was abolished and its place taken by a modem system of military education. Nine cadet companies were formed in frontier towns, commanded by the governors of the places, each with an instructional stag for the benefit of the cadets. The idea being a complete novelty, the companies naturally suffered from teething troubles, but within a very short time they were already proving their worth. By June 1683 Louis admits that not even his Musketeers make a better show on parade than the Besançon company, and a year later the Cambrai company had already passed out some four hundred satisfactory young officers. The instruction given seems to have been good, and the syllabus extensive; drill, the manual, and musketry were the most important subjects, but in addition the cadets were taught dancing, fencing, riding, geography, and the principles of mathematics. But instruction in the latter subject seems to have left much to be desired, for Louvois complains in 1685 that he has examined four Longwy cadets and found them ignorant of the first rules of the subject.

Having set on foot a training scheme for the officers, Louvois turned his attention to the problem of the men: and here too he found an ample field for the exercise of his abilities. The first thing to be done was to improve the quality of the recruit, and it is interesting to notice that Louvois at Versailles and Montecuculi at Vienna hold the same view. Both insist that the time is gone by when a satisfactory army can be manufactured out of the dregs of the people, and both are anxious to secure a better stamp of recruit. Louvois tackled the problem by tightening up the recruiting regulations, giving increased powers to the army Intendants, and improving the private soldier’s opportunities and status. Recruits were enlisted on a written attestation, and for a fixed period of four years’ service: they must be physically fit, either bachelors or widowers, and under forty years of age: if intended for the Maison du Roi, the man must be a Roman Catholic, over twenty-eight, and, if possible, a gentleman. If he is a gentleman he must have a minimum of two years’ service in some other corps, and if not a gentleman, a minimum of four years.

But in spite of Louvois’ exertions in this field, the quality of the recruits yielded by the overstrained economy of the country remained a constant preoccupation. As early as 1673 Louis XIV remarks that whilst he had plenty of men, they “were not of the quality needed for the capture of fortresses.” In 1676. Luxembourg complains that his recruits are “deplorable; a good half of them mere children, whom I shall have to send back to France.”

In 1683 the War Minister has to issue orders that soldiers must not be discharged because they are an inch or two under the average height of their comrades; the line infantry must not be measured with a tape as is done in the guards, he says. In 1689 Vauban urges a defensive campaign on the ground that the infantry is very different in quality from what it was in the last war, and almost at the same moment Duras writes from another front to complain about the quality of the cavalry. By 1690 the kidnapping of recruits in Paris had reached such proportions that the Lieutenant of Police is instructed to proceed against kidnappers with the utmost rigour. By 1703 Louis has found it necessary to offer five years’ total exemption from direct taxation to any man who will enlist on a three years’ engagement. The plain fact was that France, as then organized, simply had not got the manpower available to carry out the grandiose policy of Louis XIV.

Louvois was more successful in dealing with the abuse of direct peculation than he was in solving the recruiting problem. Under his reformed system the captain still received and issued the men’s pay as heretofore, but his pay roll was audited by the army Intendant: and if his accounts did not balance, he could think himself lucky if he escaped with a sentence to make good the deficiency by stoppages from his pay. At about the same time Louvois made a real effort to improve the status of the common man; the infantry sergeant and his cavalry equivalent, the maréchal de logis were given the rank of under-officers, thus exempting them from all punishment other than that inflicted by court martial, and a system of awards for gallantry and good service was instituted. The day of decorations, even for officers, is still far distant, but Louvois provided the perhaps more powerful incentive of financial easement; exemption from the most galling direct tax, the Taille, was awarded for periods ranging from six months to total exemption for life to those soldiers who had distinguished themselves.

In 1670 a uniform scale of pay was laid down for each arm of the service: and not only laid down, but actually paid, which did something to reduce the enormous amount of desertion which was ordinary in the armies of the period. And even Louvois did not succeed in stamping it out; in 1077 there were forty-two cavalry deserters in one day from Luxembourg’s army, and in a fortnight of the same year the Regiment Dauphin lost fifty men. In the following year the crack Regiment de Champagne had sixty-five deserters in ten days. As late as 1694 the evil was still widespread, and Louis XIV, in writing to one of his generals, says that the first step towards curing desertion is to see that the behaviour of the captains gives the men no excuse for deserting. But though desertion continued, and indiscipline was scotched rather than killed, Louvois undoubtedly raised the status of the rank and file, with beneficial effects on the efficiency of the army.

Nor were the King and his ministers without some sense of responsibility for the welfare of the men who paid so heavily for the advancement of Louis’ glory and Louvois’ reputation. In 1666 we find the King writing with his usual good sense on the subject of soldier’s allowances when in billets, and in the same year he orders extra pay for troops serving in plague areas. In 1664 Beaufort, commanding in Algeria, is instructed to “take the greatest care of the sick and wounded. Tell them how I feel for them in their sufferings, and assure them that their wounds will always be a powerful recommendation to my favour.”

And again to Beaufort in the same year: “I want to know if Captain Laurier leaves a wife and children, so that I may do something for them, being anxious that people shall see that those who die in my service continue to live in my memory.”

Nor did he overlook the then generally ignored problem of those discharged as unfit for further service; in 1672 the Order of St. Lazarus and Mount Carmel was reendowed and revivified for the benefit of indigent ex-officers, while in 1674 the Hôtel des Invalides was opened for ex-soldiers. Not that this was the first provision made for this class; the wounded soldier, called a donné, had, up to this, been billeted on a monastery, a system which was not without its inconveniences. The conversation and habits of the retired warrior had not tended to the edification of the younger brethren, and we may suspect that the cellarer found himself forced to write off a good deal of his stock to leakage. The religious orders gladly purchased exemption from the requirement to lodge destitute soldiers with an annual subscription to the new foundation of the Invalides. A beginning was also made in giving preferential treatment to the fit ex-service man by allowing this class a monopoly of the sedan-chair traffic in the royal palaces.

At the same time a vigorous and much needed effort was made to reform the field hospital services; and for the moment at any rate, with such success that in 1673 a wounded officer writes from Holland, “I could not be better off (than in this hospital) if I was in my mother’s house…and the same is true of the men” A very different state of affairs from that existing in the 1667 campaign when the men preferred to die in billets rather than be admitted to the hospital. But the radical unsoundness of the hospital organization engendered constant abuses, which could be checked, but not eradicated; for the hospitals were let out to contractors at a fixed rate per patient, and a dishonest contractor had therefore every inducement to spend as little as possible on the unfortunates in his charge. But with Louvois as Secretary of War, he did so at considerable risk; in 1683 the Secretary detects frauds being perpetrated by the hospital contractor of Alsace, and gives judgment in a letter to the Intendant. The offending contractor is to be led by the common hangman through every hospital ward in the province, wearing sandwich boards with the legend fripon public, after which he is to be banished for life.

If Louvois did not entirely succeed in his struggle to stamp out indiscipline, he at any rate never relaxed his efforts to do so; but circumstances, the whole tone of society, were against him. And, oddly enough, it was Louvois who was responsible for much of the indiscipline against which he himself strove. With a naïveté remarkable in so able a man, he imagined that it was feasible to incite French armies to commit murder, rape, robbery, and arson for so long as it suited his strategical objective, and that then, on the word “halt,” the troops would once more become models of soldierly discipline. It is some little consolation for the atrocities committed by Louvois’ orders in Holland in 1672 and in Germany in 1689 to know that the damage thereby done to French morale was a major factor in bringing about the ultimate ruin of his master’s plans.

When Louvois began to look into the question of regimental training, he found that it was not so much a reform that he had to make as a beginning. The first shock came when the commander of the Hungarian Expeditionary Force reported in 1664 that one of his chief difficulties was that many of his so-called trained soldiers had never fired a musket, and did not even know the theory of that cumbersome weapon. Musketry drill, and even musketry camps, made their appearance soon after this startling disclosure, and a rigorous inquisition into the state of the muskets of all regiments was made; those which did not conform to standard weight and measurement being withdrawn and replaced at the captain’s expense. Here, for once, Louvois shows himself a reactionary; the fusil, a more modern weapon, had already made its appearance when the French army was being rearmed with the musket. But Louvois would have nothing to do with the fusil; the musket was the traditional weapon of the French infantry, and to change, said Louvois, was to disarm: an argument with which we are not unfamiliar, even today. It was not until 1670 that he consented to the experimental introduction of four fusiliers into each infantry company. He was equally conservative over the pike, with which about a third of each company was armed until 1703, in spite of frequent reports that whenever the enemy infantry was routed in battle, the first thing the Frenchman did was to throw away his pike or musket and pick up an abandoned fusil. The obstinate retention of the pike is the more inexplicable, seeing that in 1687 Vauban had invented the bayonet, which gave the infantryman a musket and pike in one. Apropos of muskets, let us note a point arising out of the correspondence, which shows Louvois’ amazing capacity for entering into detail without, like Louis XIV, losing sight of major issues. In 1683 he circularizes inspectors of infantry on the advantage of having a leather pad sewn on to the left shoulder of the tunic to take the friction of the musket when on the march.

As late as 1688 the relative weakness of French fire power was still causing Louvois anxiety; in that year officers are ordered to provide themselves with muskets, to practise on the range, and to introduce company pool shooting-competitions. And in 1692 Louis is enquiring into the report that at Steenkirke the whole of the French fire power was produced by the fusiliers alone.

Cavalry was still, and for many years to come, considered to be the arm which won battles; the rôle of the infantry being to soften up the enemy line in preparation for the cavalry charge. Consequently, cavalry training was better understood and better carried out than that of the infantry. Cavalry camps were held annually, where new tactics and weapons were tried out, and one result was that in 1679 the sabre replaced the sword as the standard cavalry weapon. In the same year cavalry fire power had its modest beginnings in the addition of two carbineers to each squadron.

In dealing with problems of administration Louvois was as indefatigable and as fertile in expedients as in those of discipline and training: and if the administrative side of Louis XIV’s armies strikes us as amateurish, it is largely because we contrast it with the administration of today, instead of with that of Louis’ opponents. Louvois’ major contribution to the problem of field maintenance was the introduction of the magazine: one of those ideas which is so obvious, once someone else has thought of it. The magazine conferred a strategic power on Louis XIV’s armies which took Europe off its guard; hitherto it had been accepted as a law of nature that cavalry could not take the field until the spring herbage was sufficiently grown to supply it with forage. Now, thanks to magazines, French cavalry could both march and manoeuvre in any month of the year; and further, the existence of magazines helped to offset the French cavalry’s notorious extravagance in the matter of forage consumption. Certainly from 1693 on-wards there were authorized scales of forage issue, but an attention to such details was a clerkly activity unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

And the same attitude was taken towards the feeding of the troops. The staple ration of the French soldier was bread, and on the march, biscuit, the latter baked hard, with a hole in the middle, so that the ration could be strung on the bandolier. Of these biscuits, a soldier could carry enough for six days. But it never seems to have occurred to the officers to check consumption; at the first night’s halt the men would barter their biscuit for wine, with the result that a formation badly wanted at the front would be found immobile and three days’ march from its destination, having ran out of rations. One French general suggests as a remedy that the men should be given an allowance in cash instead of the biscuit ration; but it would seem unlikely that the French, or any other soldier of the period, would have wasted the money on bread. The Austrian Montecuculi is a strong advocate of the system of supply by contract; which suggests that either Montecuculi was very lucky in his contractors, or else took very little interest in his supply problems. If the regimental officer was careless about the conservation of rations, he could point to an equal and more criminal carelessness on the part of his superiors. When Boufflers defended Lille in 1708, he had to surrender for lack of provisions; but the shortage was caused by the issue of rations throughout the siege for the same number of men as on its opening day, no regard being paid to the very heavy casualties sustained by the defence. Indiscipline as well as negligence played its part in complicating the work of the French supply service; in 1673 the whole of Luxembourg’s army was put under stoppages of pay as a punishment for looting their own magazines. And where the troops did not loot, there was the ever present difficulty of the dishonest contractor; Berwick, commanding on the Spanish front in 1704, complains that his bread comes up bad, by reason of the contractor only half-baking it so as to make it weigh more.

Ration scales varied considerably according to the troop’s tasks and the resources of the terrain; the army in Lorraine in 1670 had an issue of fresh meat daily, Fridays excepted, but the general is told to make it clear to the men that meat is an extra to which they have no right, and which is given them by the King, and not by their captain. Again, in 1677, on the Rhine, the order is that each infantryman is to have one-third of a pound of meat daily, and each cavalryman a quarter: but while the infantry get a free issue, the value of the cavalryman’s ration is to be stopped from his pay. And the issue of meat is to cease as soon as there is an abundance of peas and beans. In 1690 the authorized meat issue is three pounds a week, free to the infantry, and at a reduced rate to the cavalry, while the Maison du Roi pay full contract price. Louis XIV is himself credited with one contribution towards solving the problem of rations in the field, that of introducing the portable oven, which in one day’s halt could bake enough bread for the next six days. I am inclined to suspect that this is truly his own idea; it is just the sort of administrative detail at which the King, nothing of a general, but an excellent junior staff officer, excelled.

Wherever we turn, we find the generals hampered by having to rely on the contract system for the performance of duties which are now regarded as an integral part of the functions of an army; even the artillery was, until 1672, a civilian commercial enterprise, in which the contractor hired soldiers to mount his batteries, and was paid so much for each gun brought into action, a system only one degree less bad than that obtaining in the contemporary Spanish army, where the contractor was paid for every time he moved a gun. The result naturally being that Spanish artillery was constantly on the move, and hardly ever in action. The supply and transportation of rations was organized also on a contractual basis, with results which were sometimes disastrous. In 1675 Maréchal de Créqui was beaten at Consaarbruck without having succeeded in bringing a single gun into action; the post mortem revealed the fact that the artillery contractor, expecting a quiet day, had lent his horses to the commissariat to bring in a convoy. And where were the commissariat contractor’s own horses? We are not told, but I have a strong suspicion that they were out on hire to the neighbouring farmers. The whole system cried out, not for more detailed supervision from Versailles, but for the appointment of a general officer charged solely with the duties of administration in the field: and this solution seems to have occurred to no one. Each army had indeed its military Intendant, but that official was as overworked as his Home Office confrère, and was operating in a milieu unsuited to the technique of the civilian administrator. And the general, so far from regarding him as a member of his staff, usually was at daggers drawn with him, regarding the Intendant, not without reason, as a spy. In 1678 the War Minister writes to the Intendant of the army in Roussillon, “Your first duty is to let me know everything that is said, projected, and done in the army.”

At best, the general saw in the Intendant a superior sort of clerk, detailed to act as his man of business, whilst to Louvois and his successors, the Intendant was the channel through which they exercised control over the general; the situation was rich in opportunities for friction, and friction there was. Nor were the soldiers entirely to blame. In 1665 Louvois has to write to an Intendant thus: “A War Commissioner has no right to pretend to any command over troops, nor over the inhabitants of the district in which the army is operating…and if you do so, I shall be unable to uphold you.”

In 1669 the boot is on the other foot, and it is the Intendant who is energetically supported in his complaint that he has received nothing but paroles assez fâcheuses from an officer whose men’s weapons are in a bad state. Dozens of other examples could be quoted to show the difficulties of the precarious equilibrium which Louvois managed to impose on those uneasy bedfellows, the general and the Intendant.

In the sphere of higher tactics there was a latent weakness in the new model French army, which does not reveal its full danger until the second half of the personal reign. Remote and overcentralized control was the evil, and it had its birth not only in Louvois’ love of power, but in the history and character of the King himself. Two factors combined to imbue Louis XIV with the fatal notion that he could control battles and manoeuvres from his room at Versailles; firstly, his boyhood and youth had taught him the national danger, and what he felt even more deeply, the personal humiliation, which could be inflicted by semi-independent and potentially rebellious generals. If he could not reduce his commanders-in-chief to impotence as he had done his nobles, he could at least make sure that they should be ever conscious of the hand of the master. Secondly, Louis, like so many men, fancied his skill in the one sphere in which he was palpably at his worst, namely, that of a military commander; and, having a fine natural vanity, his easy successes when in command had convinced him that nothing was so easy as to be a successful soldier. Moreover, his generals, one of whose chief preoccupations was to keep the King away from the front, were constant in their flattering assurances to His Majesty that he could exercise the supreme command as easily from the palace as from his tent in the field. The soldiers thus kept the King at home in many campaigns, but at a heavy price; Louis took their flattery seriously; control from Versailles became ever stricter and more detailed until in Louis XIV’s last war, it was practically unknown for a general in the field to threaten an enemy place or even strike camp without sending off a courier to the King for his instructions. And by the time orders arrived, a change in the situation had rendered their execution impracticable. The performances of the French higher command in the 1701-12 war is a sufficient comment on the working of the theory of remote control.

But when all has been said, the reform, or rather the recreation, of the French army remains one of the most remarkable achievements of seventeenth-century France; the work of the pioneer is by its very nature imperfect, and those who look back on it tend to criticize what was left undone rather than to appreciate what was accomplished. And the accomplishment of the army created by Louvois was that it kept Louis XIV’s crown on his head in his last disastrous war, and quite possibly prevented the fall of the monarchy.


“The Army,” in W.H. Lewis’s book “The Splendid Century,”

Centurion Engineers’ Tanks

A shortage of Mk 7s hulls meant that the production vehicle was to be based on the hull of the Mk 5, into which was fitted a 165mm L9A1 gun firing a heavy demolition charge, but lacking the automatic stabiliser equipment found on the gun tanks. There was also an L3A3 or L3A4 0.30in Browning machine gun – the use of this gun on the AVRE was something of an anomaly since it remained in service for this application long past its demise elsewhere in the British Army. Just forty vehicles were constructed, some of which were based on the hulls of Centurion Mk 12 artillery observation posts fitted with a Pearson’s mine plough in place of the standard ‘dozer blade, and retaining the 105mm gun of the original. A jettisonable 15-ton four-wheel trailer (FV2721A) was also developed for use with the Centurion AVRE to carry either a fascine bundle or trackway.

Various types of armoured support vehicle were developed during the Second World War and these contributed in no small part to the success of the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944. The range of vehicles included ‘dozer tanks, armoured recovery vehicles (ARVs), beach armoured recovery vehicles (BARVs), armoured engineers’ vehicles (AVREs), bridgelayers (AVLBs) and armoured ramp carriers (ARKs), and various types of mine-clearance vehicle. Most were based on either the Sherman or Churchill hull and, despite their age, many remained in service with the British Army into the immediate post-war years. As these vehicles began to age, or became obsolete for other reasons, it was the Centurion chassis that was generally selected as the replacement.

The first to go was the old armoured recovery vehicle. When the Centurion started to enter service, it soon became apparent that a Sherman- or Churchill-based armoured recovery vehicle was not really going to be adequate to recover the near 50-ton weight of the new tank. Clearly a new recovery vehicle would be required. As an interim measure, a number of damaged Centurions were converted to tugs, or ‘towers’, in the British Army’s Commonwealth Base Workshop at Kure, Japan. Some were used in Korea, both for recovery and as supply and ammunition carriers, where it was shown that they were capable of hauling sledges loaded with up to 2 tons of ammunition up mountain sides. Other tugs were constructed by modifying obsolete gun tanks at 27 Base Workshop in Britain and at 7 Armoured Workshop BAOR.

However work had already started on designing a purpose-made armoured recovery vehicle using the Centurion hull. REME 13th Command Workshops (now 43rd) constructed a prototype at Aldershot during 1951 that was similar in concept to the old Churchill ARV Mk 2. There was a dummy turret and gun, and an 18-ton winch powered by the six-cylinder engine of a Bedford truck, but the crew compartment was cramped due to the need to provide a separate winch engine. Eleven examples had been constructed by the end of 1951, with a total of eight sent to Korea, and two to BAOR. Eventually, a total of 170 Centurions were converted to ARV Mk 1 configuration, with any problems that arose in service being ironed out as the conversion work continued.

Meanwhile, development work continued on the ‘official’ Mk 2 (FV4006) Centurion ARV. The first prototype for the Mk 2 (03ZR52) was constructed by Garner Motors of Acton in 1952, with trials continuing during 1953 and 1954. It was found that the removal of the turret reduced the weight of the machine to the point where its hill-climbing performance could be described as ‘remarkable’. The Bedford petrol engine that had been used to drive the winch on the Mk 1 variant was abandoned in favour of an electric motor powered by a 400V 160Ah generator that was in turn driven by a Rolls-Royce B80 No.1 Mk 2P or 5P eight-cylinder petrol engine, with a maximum power output of 165bhp at 3,750rpm from a displacement of 5,675cc. The generator was coupled to the winch via a roller chain. A huge spade anchor fitted at the rear was designed to be deployed using the main winch cable, and improvements were made to the layout of the winch, which was now rated at 30 tons for a direct pull, and to its roping arrangements, which now allowed pulls to the front or rear. or to either side by the use of pulley blocks. Considerable thought was given to the dissipation of heat produced by the winch and its power unit, which could result in overheating of the crew compartment, particularly when operating in high ambient temperatures. Although the problem was largely solved by means of fitting a large oil cooler together with a pair of fans forcing air through them, it was still necessary to limit the vehicle to five or six ‘pulls’ at full load. At the same time, trials were being carried out to determine the optimum construction of the steel wire rope used on the winch in order to obtain the best balance of life and wear.

A hull-mounted A-frame jib was also developed that could be attached to the front of the hull, allowing the ARV to remove and replace power packs in the field, and to provide a suspended tow to disabled vehicles.

Although a markedly better vehicle than the Mk 1, the hull remained cramped for the four-man crew, particularly the wireless operator, who had very little headroom when the hull was closed down, and it was occasionally necessary to remove the roof to gain access for maintenance of the winch. Production began in 1955 at ROF Woolwich and Vickers-Armstrongs, with the first example accepted into service in 1956; most of the 345 vehicles constructed were converted from obsolete gun tanks, and some were still in service as late as the end of the 1980s. In 1962 many of those in service with BAOR were modified to carry two spare 105mm gun barrels in place of the side stowage bins. This proved not to be entirely satisfactory because, although it reduced the need for accompanying trucks to carry the gun barrels, the ARV was not actually equipped to change the barrels and the attendance of a crane-equipped vehicle was still required.

A proposed Centurion ARV Mk 3 (FV4013) with a more spacious forward crew compartment, which would have placed the driver in with the rest of the crew, was never pursued beyond a design study.

During the amphibious landing stages of the D-Day assault there had been a second type of ARV designed exclusively for recovering drowned or disabled tanks and trucks on the landing beaches. Based on the M4 Sherman hull from which the turret and gun had been removed, and the sides raised to allow the vehicle to wade in up to 8ft of water, the beach armoured recovery vehicle (BARV or, occasionally, beach ARV), had shown itself to be enormously useful. The Sherman BARVs remained in service until the late 1950s but by this time they were proving unable to recover the heavier armoured vehicles that had started to enter service and, when the question of replacement arose in 1956/57, it seemed logical to use the hull of the Centurion. The Fording Trials Branch of REME used an obsolete Centurion ‘tower’ to produce a mild-steel mock-up along the lines of the Sherman BARV, operated by a four-man crew. The hull was extended forwards by about 5ft, with a large rope-cushioned pusher pad installed at the front,; this pad was subsequently replaced by a hardwood nosing block to reduce the danger of damaging landing craft. The prototype, which had been constructed from mild steel, was demonstrated at the Amphibious Trials and Training Unit (ATTU) at Instow in 1958/59 before being handed over to FVRDE for final development of the ‘proper’ armoured version. By the end of 1960 a batch of just twelve Centurion BARVs (FV4018) had been constructed at ROF Leeds using a mix of redundant Mk 1, Mk 2 and Mk 3 hulls. The overall height, with the armoured hull extension, was 140in, and the vehicle was capable of wading in a maximum of 114in of water, although at this depth the driver was effectively ‘blind’ and was obliged to rely on voice commands from the commander to direct the 40-ton machine. A set of lifting gear was also developed that could be attached to the hull of the BARV to enable it to lift out its own engine.

When the Army’s amphibious capability was phased out in favour of the Royal Marines, the Centurion BARVs were similarly reassigned, and two are known to have been taken to the Falkland Islands in 1982 along with the British Task Force.

At around the same time that the Centurion hull was being pressed into service as a BARV, the finishing touches were also being put to a Centurion-based bridgelayer. Early development work on armoured bridgelayers – or armoured vehicle launched bridges (AVLB) as they tend to be described these days – had been conducted using the hulls of Valentine infantry tanks, but most of those constructed and deployed during the Second World War were carried on a modified Churchill hull. As regards its post-war replacement, it had originally been intended to use the chassis of the FV200 series universal tank but when this was abandoned work had started on developing a Centurion bridgelayer; as early as 1946 experiments had involved mounting a lattice steel framework onto the hull of Centurion prototype number three to test the manoeuvrability of what was inevitably a somewhat extended vehicle. In 1952 a mock-up bridge was mounted onto a Centurion Mk 1 production hull, and by 1956 a working prototype had been constructed by Hudswell Clark of Leeds using a Mk 2 hull. User trials of this, and a second, modified prototype, this time possibly based on a Mk 7 hull, were completed by September 1958. By this time it had already been decided that the production vehicles would be based on redundant Mk 3 or Mk 5 hulls that would be reworked to bring them up to Mk 7 standard.

The Class 80 ‘bridge, tank, number 6’ consisted of four identical aluminium-alloy quarter sections topped with mesh trackways that were joined together in pairs to give a 52ft-long double-track bridge, capable of spanning 42ft. The bridge was carried in an inverted position along the length of the tank hull, and when the bridge was fully assembled the vehicle was almost 53ft long, so the bridge sections were generally carried on a small fleet of 3-ton trucks until required for deployment. In use, the four bridge sections were connected by two portal frames and a diagonal brace, and were attached to the launch arm at the nose of the vehicle. A lifting jib on the launch arm was used to assist in the assembly of the bridge sections, with brackets on the trackways used to attach the bridge to the arm. In-fill panels were carried on the sides of the hull, designed to be placed across the gap between the two longitudinal bridge components to allow smaller, wheeled vehicles to cross. During the launch operation, which took two minutes, the assembled bridge was simply lifted from its stowed position and rotated through 180 degrees vertically before being placed on the ground behind the tank, at which point it was disengaged from the mechanism and the tank would withdraw. Recovery was more or less the reverse of the launch process, taking four minutes.

The hydraulic equipment required to launch and recover the bridge was powered by a Rolls-Royce B40 No.1 Mk 5P four-cylinder petrol engine, with a power output of 62bhp at 2,800rpm. The auxiliary engine was connected to a Towler Brothers hydraulic pump by a drive shaft taken directly from the flywheel, and was controlled electrically by solenoid-operated valves. Both the auxiliary engine and the hydraulic equipment were housed inside the fighting compartment.

The resulting vehicle weighed 49.6 tons with the bridge in place but nevertheless was capable of a top speed of 20mph on the road. The first pre-production Centurion bridgelayer was completed by ROF Leeds in early 1960 and, following acceptance trials, production proper started in 1961 and continued until 1963, with many going for export. The sheer size of the machine and the resultant lack of manoeuvrability meant that it was unable to keep up with the gun tanks in urban areas, not least in West Germany where most were deployed. Nevertheless, the vehicle remained in service until 1974, when it was replaced by the Chieftain bridgelayer that deployed a more versatile scissors bridge.

The Royal Netherlands Army operated a Centurion-based bridgelayer of its own design, mounting a forward-launched scissor bridge similar to that fitted to the US Army’s M48 and M60 bridgelayers.

Churchill tanks had also been modified to act as armoured ramp carriers (ARKs) – effectively, a rapid assault bridge – during the Second World War and, although these also remained in service into the immediate post-war years, by the late 1950s they were showing their age. The FVRDE-designed replacement (FV4016) used the hull of a Centurion Mk 5 from which the turret and gun were removed, with a roof plate covering the turret ring; the commander was relocated inside the hull alongside the driver. Folding ramps were attached to either end of the hull, and a trackway was fitted across the top. In use, the tank was driven into the centre of a ditch or trench, or up against a sea wall, and the ramps were folded out hydraulically at either end to form a Class 80 continuous bridge, with the hull of the tank itself forming the centre section. In travelling configuration, the length of the ARK exceeded 34ft and, when deployed, the 81ft-long bridge gave a useful span of 75ft and a width of 14ft across the ramps.

There was some concern that the increased weight of the ARK would place greater loadings on the rear wheel stations and development trials for the ARK were carried out in 1957, with particular attention paid to the suspension loadings. Both Mk 5 (although in actual fact it was a Mk 3 hull that had been weighted to simulate a Mk 5) and Mk 7 hulls were trialled, with the objective of determining whether or not the performance of the vehicle was reduced by an unacceptable degree. The report published at the conclusion of the trials stated that the convoy performance of the Centurion ARK would be reduced by some 50–75 per cent when compared to the gun tank, and that tyre temperatures would become critical after running for 90 minutes, as opposed to 120–150 minutes for the latter.

The Centurion ARKs, which were constructed by ROF Leeds, remained in service until 1975, by which time this type of equipment was considered to be obsolete.

Another variant of the ARK was the so-called Centurion ARK mobile pier (CAMP), which was designed to provide a central pier support in the centre of a waterway that could accept two ‘number 6’ tank bridges. The ramps were omitted, leaving only the central trackway in place.

During the Second World War Churchill tanks had also been converted to the ‘armoured vehicle, Royal Engineers’ (AVRE) role, being used for the demolition of structures such as pillboxes and gun emplacements, and for carrying a fascine bundle that could be used to allow ditch crossing. Development of the Churchill AVRE continued into the post-war years, but by the end of the decade attention had switched to the Centurion as a basis for such a vehicle.

The first proposals for a Centurion-based AVRE date back to September 1950, when a prototype was produced at the Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment (FVPE) using the hull of Centurion prototype number four (T352413, subsequently renumbered 02BA58), and the turret of a Centurion Mk 1 into which had been installed a 95mm howitzer. A full-width (13ft) hydraulically operated compact ‘dozer blade, produced by the Newcastle company T.B. Pearson & Sons, was fitted to the nose, with a cradle to carry the fascine bundle above it. These changes effectively shifted the centre of gravity of the 53-ton vehicle forward of the centreline of the suspension by around 6in. In 1954/55 there were further trials with a Centurion Mk 3 (02BA12) that had been weighted to represent a Centurion AVRE carrying a 5-ton fascine bundle on the cradle, bringing the total weight up to 55.6 tons. The trials were intended to report on any negative impacts on the suspension and track system, and the vehicle was tested across 146 miles, with the speed limited to 12mph on the road and 8mph across country. It was concluded that carrying the fascine bundle ‘causes no apparent damage to the suspension of the vehicle’. Trials were also carried out with a modified Mk 3-based AVRE that had been fitted with simplified gun controls.

Despite all these trials, problems with development and a shortage of materials meant that the final prototype, by now using the hull of the Centurion Mk 7 gun tank, did not appear until August 1957. By this time the vehicle featured a front-mounted ‘dozer blade, the rams for which were fitted into armoured boxes on the nose plate; a removable 10-ton jib, eventually mounted on a ball and socket arrangement; a cradle for carrying a fascine bundle, with the release effected via blow-out pins; and a 1.5-ton hydraulically operated winch. Hydraulic controls for the ‘dozer and winch were provided in the driver’s compartment. Definitive development trials, concentrating on the hydraulics and the ancillary equipment, were initiated in 1959 but there were further delays before production finally got under way in 1963. (See colour plate 8, a and b.) By this time a shortage of Mk 7s meant that the production vehicle was to be based on the hull of the Mk 5, into which was fitted a 165mm L9A1 gun firing a heavy demolition charge, but lacking the automatic stabiliser equipment found on the gun tanks. There was also an L3A3 or L3A4 0.30in Browning machine gun – the use of this gun on the AVRE was something of an anomaly since it remained in service for this application long past its demise elsewhere in the British Army. Just forty vehicles were constructed, some of which were based on the hulls of Centurion Mk 12 artillery observation posts fitted with a Pearson’s mine plough in place of the standard ‘dozer blade, and retaining the 105mm gun of the original. A jettisonable 15-ton four-wheel trailer (FV2721A) was also developed for use with the Centurion AVRE to carry either a fascine bundle or trackway.

Although the AVRE was equipped with a hydraulic ‘dozer blade, back in 1958 a requirement had been issued for fitting such a blade to a Centurion gun tank, but it was to be a further three years or so before the vehicle (FV4019) started to enter service. Designed to replace the Churchill- and Centaur-based ‘dozers, the latter lacking a turret, the Centurion ‘dozer was based on the Mk 5 gun tank to which had been fitted a hydraulically operated bulldozer blade manufactured by Pearson’s and identical to that fitted to the Centurion AVRE. The blade was operated via a hydraulic pump manufactured by H.M. Hobson, and the equipment was supplied as a prefabricated ‘dozer kit that could be fitted to either the Centurion or the Conqueror, with the hydraulic pump driven by the main engine. The main gun remained operative, although there was some reduction in the number of rounds that were carried, and both Mk 5 tanks, equipped with the 20-pounder (83.4mm) gun, and Mk 5/1 tanks with the 105mm L7 gun, were converted. With the ‘dozer equipment in place, the weight was increased to 52.6 tons, and the tank became somewhat nose heavy and unstable when firing to the rear; the additional weight also precluded up-armouring.

There were initial problems with hydraulic connections, but it was a useful piece of kit, and the report of the development trials stated categorically that the ‘dozer-equipped Centurion was ‘the first armoured bulldozer to exceed by a considerable margin the earth-moving capacity of the Caterpillar D8’ (bulldozer), shifting 300yd3 of soil an hour compared to just 200 for the Caterpillar, and it was able to dig a ‘hull-down’ defensive position for a tank in light soil in just 7 minutes. It was also capable of removing concrete and steel road-block obstacles, hardwood trees up to around 36in diameter, and of breaching reinforced concrete walls.

Centurion ‘dozers were also exported to Australia and Denmark.