The British Tanks Without a War I

These are pictures of the A.I6EI. One would presume that the ECLA smoke mortar would be fitted into the opening on the top right of the turret front.

In 1936 General Wavell and Lieutenant General Martel were part of a military mission to Russia to view manoeuvres near Minsk. The mission took an overland route and passed through Berlin where they met Colonel Frederick Hotblack, the British military attaché in Hitler’s Third Reich.

After this brief interlude the military observers continued to the Minsk exercises where they spent four days watching about 1,200 Soviet tanks in action. This was a fraction of the total Soviet Union’s tank force of the time which was over 13,000. Just eight years earlier, during a debate on how tanks were used, and how to defend against them, a British staff officer was on record as saying:

infantry are set upon by tanks and other horrible devices until the poor infantry officer has very little time to think about carrying out his job. It is important to train in all these things, but we are getting a wrong sense of proportion as to what we are to expect in a war. To produce sufficient armoured vehicles to attack us in anything like the way we attack our own infantry in peacetime, the enemy will require 4,000 at least.I don’t know of an army which has any intention of producing anything like this number of armoured vehicles. I cannot believe that our infantry will ever be attacked in anything like the way we attack our infantry in peace training.

Then, after this demonstration at Minsk, the military mission travelled on to Moscow. From this hub they travelled around the region, visiting several military bases and manufacturing complexes. Martel and Wavell both came to different conclusions from this demonstration of the Soviet tank force. Wavell, one presumes, took the demonstration of speed and Christie suspension to heart and maybe thought back to his part in the 1929 conference. Martel, however, had other ideas forming on the way home.

This train of thought was briefly interrupted when leaving Minsk and about to cross the Russian border into Poland. At the time the Soviet Union had strict currency controls in place, which prevented the removal of roubles from the country. At the border an official appeared and asked the travellers if they were carrying any money. The British officers admitted that they were, and also said that they realised they would have to surrender it. The Russian official helpfully pointed out that this sort of eventuality had been foreseen and there was a list of societies that a traveller could join, and to which they could donate their monies. After reading the list the British officers all started laughing and instantly subscribed to the ‘Society for the assistance of Individuals in Russia who were being persecuted by the communists’. The Russian officials found this quite hilarious as well.

Upon their return it is likely that Wavell began to agitate for the Christie suspension, and cruiser tanks, or at least someone who read his reports did, and the rest they say is history. Wavell would put his theories of armoured warfare to good use against the Italians in the North African desert.

As we have seen, Martel, now appointed to the Master General of the Ordnance department, was quite happy to be designing and building his own tanks and so started a new project, this time to design a full-sized medium tank. In his endeavours, he set up a small cabal of tank officers, including Liddell Hart. The medium tank Martel designed seems to have gained the nickname ‘Monster’. For a year the group worked its influence but the Master General of the Ordnance, Lieutenant General Sir Hugh Elles, and Major General Alexander Elliott Davidson, the Director of Mechanisation, were opposed to the tank. By June 1937 these officers were considering tanks for the 1938 financial year. Although the A.7 was still about and technically a medium, it in no way fulfilled the General Staff requirements for a medium tank. The A.6 was closer to meeting the requirements, although falling some way short, which supports the claim that the A.6 was a tank ahead of its time.

On 9 June, Davidson forwarded two blueprints for consideration. One was a curiosity of which we have just a description. Based on the hull of an A.12 Matilda, how it differed from a normal infantry tank, or even what the turret looked like, we do not know. The second set of plans were the ones on which Martel had been working previously, and would in time become the A.14E1. A board met in committee on the 15th to review the situation and decide upon a course of action. After the current designs, A.6 and A.7, were reviewed, the board agreed that, if a Wilson-style steering was used, then a mere 15hp per ton would be sufficient to meet the General Staff requirements.

From this starting point the board reverse-engineered the maximum upper limit for the weight of the tank by comparing it to available engines and their horsepower. The four engines considered were the Liberty, with 400hp giving a tank of 24 tons, and the Meadows V12 with 430hp, giving a tank weight of 26.5 tons. Then came an interesting consideration, the Napier Lion engine, already fitted to the Supermarine S.4 and S.5 racing seaplanes, which would, eventually, lead to the Spitfire. The engine was also fitted to the British powerboat companies Type 2 high-speed launch, a craft that would later be used by the RAF’s search and rescue units during the Second World War. The Lion produced the same 430hp as the Meadows V.12.

The engine finally selected was the Thornycroft RY12, which had an output listed at 575hp. This gave the tank weight of 32.5 tons. The 575hp output is curious since the original engine only produced 548hp but, by the end of April, a set of Simms dual ignition had been fitted which pumped its power output up to 607hp. After selection for the medium tank, the power requirements were reviewed and the engine derated by carburettor adjustment. After this modification, a test programme was run with the engine doing eighty-five hours at differing speeds and loads without a single problem. Furthermore, a second of these engines, linked to a specially-designed Borg and Beck clutch, was able to complete a test programme of 500 hours running when fitted to the A.6E3.

The board then turned its attention to the two blueprints on offer. The A.12-based one was rejected for unspecified reasons, but the second was much better liked, although it did have its flaws. In the eyes of the board the main difficulty was that it only had a single sub-turret on the left side. The board noted that if Martel’s original design could be altered to carry two sub-turrets, the Martel design would be viewed favourably.

The board’s requirements for a medium tank are worth studying. The requirements were called ‘1938 class medium tank’ and, in most respects, match those of the A.14E1 as eventually produced. However, there was a noticeable difference at first glance. The A.14 had a six-man crew, but the requirements had a seven-man crew, the spare man being located in the turret. Presumably, he was there to help take care of the plethora of weaponry crammed into the turret, which included a high-angle smoke mortar, a dedicated .303 anti-aircraft machine gun (which may also have had its own sub-turret at the rear of the tank; differing sources state different things) and, most intriguingly of all, the main gun was listed as a 2-pounder with an ‘automatic feed’. There was also the requirement that a howitzer could be fitted if need be.

Some more modern sources indicate that all the machine guns on the tank were to be air-cooled, and the Czech ZB machine gun (later the Besa machine gun) was discussed as a possible candidate. These were located with two twin-mountings in each sub-turret and a single machine gun mounted co-axially to the main gun. Another difference was that the requirement was for 25 tons in weight. When the A.14 was produced, it had a weight of 29 tons, and the board was hoping to fit in an extra man, and automatic feed for the gun, as well as fifty more rounds and the same difference in number of miles range, all under the same armour protection. This was a wildly optimistic weight. The armour on the tank was given as 30mm basis, 20mm protecting the engine and everywhere else as 25mm.

On 17 June another meeting was held. As well as the officers present before, Percy Hobart and Martel were also there. This meeting’s goal was to determine what tank would be built immediately. As well as the A.14, the A.7, A.9 and A.10 were all discussed. Hobart led a determined case for the idea of the sub-turret to be retained, stating that it was the only fitting that gave sufficient arcs of fire and, to avoid a blind side, two turrets were needed. Hobart, however, fared less well in his second point of contention. He was opposed to producing the A.9 as a stop-gap, which became the board’s first decision. While the A.9 was being produced, in the medium term two of the new mediums would be produced. At this point the tank received its official designation of A.14. The long-term goal, however, was not production of the A.14; the tank was to be redesigned to give experience in the class so that a new medium tank could be designed meeting the requirements issued by the General Staff. The tank to meet the requirements would be numbered A.15. The designation A.15 was later re-issued for the A.15 Crusader. The medium tank to follow on from the A.14 had nothing to do with Crusader. This view was re-affirmed, when, in late February 1938, the Director of Mechanisation described the role of the A.14 as:

The A.14 is a prototype of a medium tank which it is proposed to develop as rapidly as possible, so that if a heavy and fast medium tank of this nature is needed in the future, we shall be ready.

Some branches in the Mechanisation Board were opposed to the 1938 class specifications on several grounds, such as the range of the weaponry, which ‘clashed badly’, the complicated armour layout, and the four-man turret which would increase the width of the tank. It was this last point that caused the 1938 class to fail. After several discussions and changes of mind over the rail-loading gauge (even at one point considering using the continental loading gauge) the tank was dropped due to its width.

Before that, on 24 June, official confirmation that the A.14 was to be progressed was issued. For once, the A.14 was issued a name, albeit a slightly dismissive one. It may also have just been an internal description from Davidson, who referred to it as ‘Modified Monster’.

At the very end of June, the subject of engines was revisited. As well as the ones mentioned before, the Paxman Ricardo V12 and Rolls Royce Kestrel were considered, as well as two foreign engines, listed only as the ‘Isotta Fraschini’ and the ‘Lorraine’. The latter two were dismissed due to difficulties in obtaining large numbers, and on the grounds of not having a secure supply under the government’s control. There was also some concern that minor variations were being constantly worked into these two engines during production, which could lead to non-standard parts. In the end the meeting confirmed the previous decision.

The meeting also considered the suspension. It was decided to use Vickers-Horstman type suspension as that would lead to development work on the type. The meeting saw no point in having two companies (Nuffield Mechanisation Ltd was working on Christie-type suspension) work on the same suspension design and would rather develop two separate designs so that, should one prove clearly superior, it could be used as the standard.

Now that a plan of action had been selected the War Office started trying to fit the modifications into the ‘Monster’. From the start, this monster put up a fight. The General Staff requirement was for a tank of 25 tons, but with the redesign to incorporate the twin sub-turrets, the projected weight climbed rapidly to 28 tons. Why, one would, ask was this a problem, since the earlier meeting had worked out that the Thornycroft RY12 could move a tank of over thirty tons? At the meeting on the 17th, and later, the complaint was that design trends in British tanks were to fit underpowered engines, and so the board wanted to keep plenty of power in reserve which, in turn, would allow further development of the chassis.

One of the steps suggested to cut the weight of the tank was to lower the radius of operation to 150 miles, from 200, and fit a new engine. The engine picked for this diet was simply described as a ‘Junkers engine’. One would immediately see that the complaints against the use of foreign engines still stood, while Martel, now promoted to Assistant Director of Mechanisation, was on hand to point out that the Junkers engine was still extremely immature, and therefore should not be included. Although there would have been some certain irony in a German engine powering a new line of British tanks, just as the Rolls Royce Kestrel engine powered the first of the Luftwaffe’s new planes, this idea never came to pass.

The next weight-saving idea was to use cutting-edge technology. At that time, the frames of the tanks were built by riveting steel together, to which the armour was fixed. The suggestion was to use high-tensile steel with the joints welded for the frame. The design department had no idea if this was even possible, or if the technique had been perfected, and thus the Institute of Welding was to be contacted to find out if the suggested method was possible and, if not, if research into this field could be conducted.

Another meeting was held on 26 August to select a parent company for the building of the two prototypes. At first Vulcan Foundry was chosen but that company was producing the A.12 Matilda, a tank requiring a large amount of hand grinding to get the hull to the correct armour thickness. This, in turn, slowed the process of construction. With so much capacity taken up by the A.12, another company was considered. This time LMS Railway of Crewe was selected, maybe not entirely by chance it appears. The locomotive engineer selected to build the A.14 was Mr H. Ivatt, a friend of General Davidson; they had known each other since the First World War. Equally, the discussions on width and railway loading gauge for the A.15 may have influenced the choice of a railway construction company.

In November the mock-up of the A.14 was complete, and three officers from various armour schools were selected to view it with a fighting officer’s eye but there is no record of the report that Major Harland and Captains Carmichael and Berkley-Miller filed.

With a war hurtling towards the British, in 1938 the confusing mess of cruiser, heavy cruiser and, potentially, a new class of medium began to make itself felt. Indeed, it seems that an awful lot of effort was expended by the War Office determining what each tank was and explaining the minute differences between tanks. Here the story starts to get mixed up with several other tanks, and indeed spawns new ones.

For nearly a year until December 1938, the A.14 project disappeared from the record. Then things started to move when a limited production of A.14s was scheduled to start in 1939. At the same time, increasing the armour value of the A.14 above 30mm was to be investigated. The branch detailed to review the armour arrangements had already been at work on redesigning the A.14. This proposal was to mount a V8 version of the standard Thornycroft RY12 engine (termed the RY8), transversely across the hull, not lengthways as was normal, which would enable the tank to be shorter. This proposal also included the idea of removing the sub-turrets on the front of the hull; however, they were re-installed on the roof of the main turret, complete with the gunners for each sub-turret, creating a five-man turret! One cannot, even now, begin to work out how this arrangement was to work as the machine-gun turret gunners’ legs, at the very least, would have been protruding into the fighting compartment. This contraption was given the designation A. 19 and it seems from later suggestions that the turret ring would have been the massive size for that time, of 64 inches (5 feet and 4 inches/1.6 metres). It is curious, considering that the A.15 project was ended due to its four-man turret, that the mechanisation board thought they could succeed with a five-man turret, where they had previously failed with a smaller number of crew.

Due to the large number of unknowns involved in the design, and the lack of power plant, it was agreed that the A. 19 could not be produced in 1939. However, authorisation was given to continue work on the tank. The main sticking point was that the Thornycroft RY8 did not as yet exist. Indeed it was later stated that the entire A.19 project was dependent on the RY8. In January 1939 a meeting was held at the John Thornycroft works in Reading where the War Office laid out the requirements: the RY8 needed to produce 200hp at 2,000rpm with an emergency back-up of running at 2,400rpm for one hour required. It had to be able to run on grade three fuel.

With several tanks needing this engine, there was some pressure to produce it and, foreseeing a bottleneck in producing crank components, it was urged that an order for two engines be placed immediately. Thornycrofts had submitted a price of £7,000 for two engines but had stressed that this was not a carefully worked out estimate.