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Playing Catch-up

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When talking about the status of tank building in various nations at the start of WW2, many tend to point to the Americans as the worst ones off. This is entirely incorrect. First of all, the American infantry and cavalry had a decent number of tanks, although not many medium ones. Second, these tanks were adapted for the American theatre of war and had exceptional mobility. Third, the Americans started the war with a well formed concept of what a tank should look like, which allowed them to quickly begin production of next generation tanks. In comparison, the British were doing very poorly, to the point where only their status as an island nation saved them from a catastrophe. This was the result of a crisis that began in the 1920s.

Reset of past successes

British tank building was progressing well until 1928. The French were still being pulled down by the weight of thousands of old Renault FT tanks, while the British got rid of their obsolete tanks quite quickly. The "rhombus" tanks were either written off or put in storage (which was functionally the same thing) and new tanks were developed instead. The leader in the tank race also changed. While William Foster and Co. Ltd used to have an almost complete monopoly on tanks during WW1, Vickers took the lead by the 1920s. Sir George Thomas Buckham and Sir Arthur Trevor Dawson (the chief designer and managing director respectively) took the company to new heights. The company later merged with Armstrong Whitworth to form Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd, which only increased the company's influence. State owned organizations, including the Royal Arsenal Woolwich, also solidified their position. They were responsible for the development of the Birch Gun, the best SPG of the 1920s. The backbone of the British 1920s armoured forces, Medium Tank Mk.I and Medium Tank Mk.II, were built by Vickers and Royal Arsenal Woolwich. 

Medium Tanks Mk.I and Mk.II, the backbone of British tank forces in the 1920s. They were supposed to be merely a stepping stone in tank development, but remained in service for a decade and a half.

Success was also experienced in tank organization. The Experimental Mechanized Force commanded by Colonel John Fuller was formed on May 1st, 1927. Most of Britain's tanks were gathered here. The purpose of the EMF was to work out the concepts of using large tank units. The EMF was created following several large armour exercises that saw not only the use of tanks, but also SPGs and artillery tractors. The British also had a well thought out tank concept. Tanks with 28 mm of front armour formed the main striking force. This allowed them to withstand the anti-tank guns of the time. Medium tanks followed, and then two-man tankettes cleaned up what was left. The A1E1 Independent was created to fit this breakthrough tank concept.

British experiments with tankettes spread to other countries.

The Medium Tanks Mk.I and Mk.II only became medium later, and were initially considered light. The Royal Armoured Corps developed a new set of requirements for a medium tank in May of 1926, after holding exercises with the Mk.I and Mk.II. The new tank took its final shape later that year. Based on the experience with the A1E1 Independent, it had two machine gun turrets for use as trench sweepers. The mass was set at 15.5 tons, but crept up to 16 tons. The tank was indexed A6, but often referred to as 16-tonner in documents. The Soviet T-28 is often called a copy of this tank, but there is a caveat. By coincidence, the "maneuver tank" developed by the GUVP since 1924 had the same weight, as did the T-12 tank that grew out of this project. Both nations arrived at the 16 ton class independently. The only thing taken from the Vickers tank was the three turret layout. In everything else, it was closer to the German tank school (having borrowed the suspension, engine, and other components).

Light, medium, and heavy tanks of the late 1920s. None of them went into mass production.

It seemed that the British were off to a good start. New tanks appeared one after another, as well as an experimental armoured unit where they could be put through their paces. However, problems began in 1927. Sir James Frederick Noel Birch, Master General of Ordnance, left the army and went to work for Vickers. He was replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Webb Gillman, an opponent of the concept of self propelled artillery and a fan of artillery tractors. Secondly, the first exercises of the EMF did not go very smoothly. There were issues with communications and other difficulties that were not unusual. Unfortunately, the EMF and its commanders had influential opponents who took advantage of this. The first alarm bell was the renaming of the EMF to AF (Armoured Force) in 1928. Buckham died in May of 1928. The loss of such an influential figure and problems with new tanks led to the dissolution of the Armoured Force in 1929. Conservatives at the head of the War Office made one mistake after another. 1929 proved fatal for the British tank program. It's not that the military lost interest in tanks, they just didn't know what they wanted.

The cost of a five year lull

It's hard to call the events of 1929 anything but a display of spite on behalf of the British generals. Yes, the tanks were quite raw and very expensive, but this has to be viewed in context of what was happening abroad. The first large exercises held with MS-1 tanks in the USSR showed that the requirements for their infantry support tank were set too low. Trials of German tanks at TEKO showed that their tanks had so many issues that the solution was to create a whole new series of vehicles. France was going through a similar process. For some reason, these nations made the correct conclusion about their mistakes. For instance, the USSR formed the Motorization and Mechanization Directorate in November of 1929. Meanwhile, the British generals steered their own tank forces into a dead end. Vickers was put out to fend for itself, which led them to pivot to the export market. The leading British tank developer was now spreading British technologies all over the world, which sowed the seeds that were reaped a decade later. German, Italian, and Japanese tank designers thanked their British colleagues immensely.

The British military didn't notice how they turned Vickers into a means of spreading their military technologies across the entire world. The same technologies were later used against them in battle.

The strangest result was that the British gained very little from export work. Vickers had its power couple in the form of John Carden and Vivian Loyd (not to mention other talented engineers like Leslie Little, the future chief tank designer at Vickers). Carden-Loyd saw a great success as a part of Vickers. Their tankettes are a well known product. The design was like a virus that instantly spread to many other nations. The same duo designed the Vickers Mk.E tank, arguably the most important tank of the interwar period. The tank had more impact on tank building worldwide than Christie's designs, and yet the British military didn't want it. To their credit, there was plenty to complain about. Carden and Loyd themselves partially admitted that the suspension was not ideal for this vehicle, and so it was not used on very many tanks. The engine was prone to overheating and the mobility was not great. The key was that the vehicle had lots of room to grow, which the USSR used to build the T-26. The British went their own way.

Light Tank Mk.I. Similar light tanks in the 5 ton class were the most numerous British tanks by the mid-1930s.

Instead of the "colonial" Vickers Mk.E the British ended up with the even more "colonial" Light Tank Mk.I, a two-man tank weighing a hair over 5 tons. Its only advantage was a high top speed. The Light Tank Mk.I and its successors were descendants of the Vickers 4-ton export tank series, just simpler and cheaper. This choice can also be explained: the Light Tank Mk.I and its successors were very polished and affordable designs. Similar tanks built in small batches followed.

The British had no luck with medium tanks for a long time. A descendant of the Medium Tank Mk.II proved difficult to produce.

Of course, the British weren't crazy and didn't intend to fight only with these "cockroaches". The problem was that neither Vickers nor Woolwich managed to make anything to go with them. The Medium Tank Mk.III turned out to be a quite unrefined tank, and the A7 medium tank developed to replace it fared no better. Perhaps the situation would have been different if Vickers was building medium tanks for export, but there was no demand for them. The budgets of most militaries were thin after the global financial crisis, and most of them could only afford light tanks. This was the state in which British tank building reached 1934. That year turned out to be pivotal. If nothing else, there was now a light at the end of the tunnel.

A cavalry charge and an infantry turtle

An important event for British armoured forces took place on January 25th, 1934. Sir Archibald Armar Montgomery Massingberd, the head of the Imperial General Staff, sanctioned the formation of a Tank Brigade. This was in part a reaction to the events in Germany, as the Nazis who had taken power made no attempts to hide their military ambition. Even though many frowned on this act, it brought back the idea of creating a large tank unit. Percy Hobart was put at the head of the new brigade, and also became the Inspector of the Royal Armoured Corps. Hobart's greatest idea was to use the tank brigade as an independent force. This was successfully demonstrated during exercises held in the fall of 1934. Hobart turned out to be much more persistent than Fuller, and was destined to become a key figure in British tank building.

Percy "Hobo" Hobart, the commander of the newly formed Tank Brigade (in the beret). "Hobo" was responsible for bringing British tank development back to a reasonable direction.

Hobart came up with the idea of separating tanks based on their purpose. Tactical-technical requirements for two infantry tanks were formed in 1934. Both were to have 25 mm thick armour and a speed of about 16 kph. The first type was to be armed with either a 7.62 or 12.7 mm machine gun. This vehicle was essentially the same class as the Renault FT. The second type of tank was supposed to be armed with a 2-pounder (40 mm) gun, a new weapon created by Vickers and Woolwich. Woolwich also began working on this tank, while the contract for the first one went to Vickers. The tank initially codenamed Matilda was developed under the direction of John Carden. After his death, that post went to Leslie Little. This vehicle was indexed A11, and the heavier variant was indexed A12. The first drafts of the A12 infantry tank were finished in September of 1936 when the A11E1 prototype already entered trials. Protection requirements increased in the meantime. The A11 now needed to have 60 mm of armour and the A12 75 mm. 

Infantry Tank A11E1, which later turned into the Infantry Tank Mk.I. Infantry support tanks armed only with machine guns were a common sight in the mid-1930s, so it should not be considered out of place.

The A11 turned into the Infantry Tank Mk.I, an outright poor design. At inception, infantry support tanks armed only with machine guns were not uncommon, in fact they made up the majority of tank forces worldwide. However, while other nations had already stopped producing them by the start of WW2, the British kept at it. What choice did they have when there were only two prototypes of the heavier Infantry Tank Mk.II completed by the time WW2 broke out? In this situation, it was better to have the Mk.I than nothing at all. The idea of the tank was not all that bad, and French light tanks were quite similar to it. Additionally, Leslie Little's grassroots project, the Infantry Tank Mk.III, was finally approved on April 4th, 1939. This turned into one of the best British tanks of WW2. In other words, the infantry tank concept was not as poor as is sometimes claimed.

Infantry Tank A12E1 prototype, better known as the Infantry Tank Mk.II or Matilda.

Requirements for a 12 ton medium tank were also composed in 1934. This was supposed to be a Medium Tank Mk.III, but lighter, smaller, and fater. As a result, the Medium Tank A9E1 developed under the direction of Leslie Little entered trials. It had a quite unusual design, but it was more reliable than its predecessors. This tank was designed for long range action in the enemy rear. Sheer chance helped the British develop this concept further. The assistant chief of the Department of Mechanization of the War Office, Lieutenant Colonel Gifford Martel, was one of the foreign observers of the 1936 exercises held in the Kiev Military District. He witnessed the performance of the Soviet convertible drive BT tanks, which fought in the same way that Hobart envisioned with his Tank Brigade. This gave rise to the Cruiser Tank concept.

A9E1, otherwise known as Cruiser Tank A9 or Cruiser Tank Mk.I. It was designed as a medium tank, but was reclassified as a cruiser.

The A9 was quickly reclassified as a cruiser tank, as it was the only tank on hand that fit the concept. In the meantime, the British turned to the father of the tank that became the prototype of the BT series, John Walter Christie. A contract was signed between the Wheel Track Layer Corporation and Morris Motor Company for the purchase of one tank on October 3rd, 1936. This was the Convertible Medium Tank M1931 that sat idle for several years. The British renamed this tank Cruiser Tank A13E1.

Cruiser Tank A13E2, the first "true" cruiser tank. It evolved into the Cruiser Tank Mk.III.

The British began working on their own analogue of the Christie tank in 1937, dubbed A13E2. Only the running gear remained from the original. This tank was also not convertible. The suspension came from the M1937 airborne tank, as it was a better design. Five years after the Soviets, the British finally had their own BT tank, although purely tracked and with the picky Nuffield-Liberty engine.

A10E1, a prototype of the "heavy cruiser" Cruiser Tank Mk.II. This tank was closed to infantry tanks in speed.

A third cruiser tank emerged. The British changed their protection requirements, wanting 60 mm of armour. The A9 chassis was not ready for such a rapid increase in weight. A compromise had to be reached: a tank with 30 mm of armour. It couldn't protect from an anti-tank gun, but this was enough to withstand 20 mm autocannon fire. This gave rise to the A10 heavy cruiser tank. As with the A9, the tank looked like a last resort. It could hardly measure up to other cruiser tanks in mobility, as with the extra armour its speed dropped to 25.6 kph.

Cruiser Tank A14, a heavy cruiser tank that was very similar to the T-28. Like the A16, this tank was a dead end.

This was not the end. Requirements for an even larger heavy cruiser tank were formed in 1936. Two companies answered the tender: Nuffield Mechanization & Aero and London Midland & Scottish Railway Company (LMS). LMS developed the A14 tank which was quite similar to the T-28. Nuffield went in a different direction. Its A16 tank ended up quite similar to the Soviet convertible drive T-29 tank. Neither the military nor even the designers were thrilled with the A14 and A16 tanks, and so the heavy cruiser program died.

Light Tank Mk.VI, the most common British tank as of the start of WW2.

Hobart and Martel brought British tank development back to a more logical path. Many criticize the British for their varied tank fleet, forgetting that their tank building program had just awoken from five years in torpor. Only vigorous action allowed to shorten the gap to a year, year and a half. The British had a sound tank concept worked out by 1938, all that they needed was a year or two to develop it. However, time was running out. Austria was annexed in March of 1938, and the Munich Agreement was signed in the fall. Germany already possessed a powerful tank force that was still smaller than the French one, but superior to the British. Chamberlain had to trade for a year of peace in order to spin up production of new tanks.

Long obsolete tanks had to be used for training.

Not everyone realizes that the British army only began receiving its first production cruiser tanks in January of 1939. Even by September 1st, 1939, the situation was quite critical. The army had 79 A9, A10, and A13 (Cruiser Tanks Mk.I, Mk.II, and Mk.III) and 1002 Light Tanks Mk.VI. The British had hundreds of other tanks, but they were all obsolete models. The biggest problem was that the Light Tank Mk.VI, the most common tank in the British army, was not good for much more than a mobile target. The cruiser tanks had thin bulletproof armour (with the exception of the A10) and were quite unreliable. The British also made strange choices like only developing AP ammunition for their cannons. Hobart and Martel are often blamed for this, but this concept dates back to the 1920s. The British were also not alone in this, for instance the Germans complained that their Czech tanks had no HE shells either.

The British entered WW2 with tanks that were a year to a year and a half behind their German opponents thanks to the conservatives that "defeated" the Armoured Force back in 1929.

Despite the nightmarish situation the British found themselves in by September of 1939, not all was lost. At the very least, their tank building had a better future than the French. The British prepared for a maneuver war rather than a repeat of WW1. Formation of the Royal Armoured Corps began on April 4th, 1939, and a number of correct reforms were performed, but the five year headstart the Germans had kept paying dividends until May of 1945.


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