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  1. David Fletcher MBE, former Tank Museum Historian, presents another in a series of exclusive articles inspired by the historic documents and photographs held in the Archive. There are some tanks that don’t fit into any category at all, and others that are so obscure that it is very difficult to learn much about them. When these factors both apply to one tank then you know you have a problem and such a case relates to the vehicle I am going to try to describe now. It was originally described as the Tank, Light, Three-Man Experimental and was awarded the General Staff identification number A3E1, which certainly classified it as a tank, it was also issued with the War Department number T1021 but no road registration number that I am aware of. It was built by the Royal Ordnance Factory to a contract dated 8 August 1925. It appears, albeit briefly, in a number of books and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of them to see what they tell us. To begin with we turn to what we call the MeeWee list. MWEE, the Mechanical Warfare Experimental Establishment was based at Farnborough and its job was to test every new vehicle for the British Army. In fact at the time we are talking about, before 1928, it was known as the Tank and Tracked Transport Experimental Establishment and for a while it used to change its title every year or so as someone in charge endeavoured to describe precisely what it did, rather like they do today, but we have always known it as MWEE (pronounced MeeWee) which was one of its longest running titles. Anyway MWEE, or the T & TTEE if you wish to be more accurate, compiled a register of every vehicle they tested with additional data, some more useful than others. Unfortunately in the case of A3E1 it’s a bit thin, a bit too thin you might think, but at least the information, coming straight from the horse’s mouth as it were is quite trustworthy. The thing arrived at Farnborough from the Royal Ordnance Factory on 29 March 1926 and was issued to the Superintendent of Design on 27 June 1929 by which time T & TTEE had become MWEE. In fact it had been effectively disposed of since it is never heard of again. It is recorded as having an AEC four cylinder engine rated at 52bhp, in effect a bus engine, along with an AEC four speed gearbox and steering by Rackham clutches. It was 6ft 1.5 inches high, 17 feet 9 inches long and 6 feet 9 inches wide, it weighed 6 tons 14 cwt. was armoured with 12.7mm, say half an inch plate and had a top speed of 16mph. It was given the MWEE number 52. While at Farnborough it was a participant in the special demonstration laid on for the assembled Dominion Premiers on 13 November 1926. It was staged on Camberley Common on what appears to have been a particularly wet and windy day. The plush little souvenir book issued for the display says that it carried the identification number 5 and adds the following details; the engine was water-cooled, which we could have guessed, and the vehicle had a cross-country top speed of 10mph. It could climb a 35 degree slope, had a circuit of action of 45 miles and could cross a gap (or trench) of 5 feet 9 inches. It had a crew of three and was armed with two machine-guns. The blurb on the page is not terribly revealing, it says ‘An experimental type of machine to carry two machine guns mounted front and rear and to be inconspicuous. It embodies an effort to reduce the cost of manufacture by utilising a commercial type of engine and a cheap type of cast steel track.’ On the page it is identified as a Three-Man Tank although when MWEE booked it in they describe it as a Tank, Three-Man Machine Gun Carrier, and if that is not enough when it was photographed, perhaps at MWEE, it had Carrier M/G No. 1 1925 written on both ends, so perhaps it wasn’t a Light Tank after all. It was photographed at Camberley, not very well due to the awful conditions but you can make out the number 5 panted on it and in any case it is the only known photograph of the vehicle in addition to the two posed portraits, that we have. There weren’t that many books on tanks published in those days but two I have contain references to this strange vehicle. The earliest is Fritz Heigl’s Taschenbuch der Tanks which first came out in 1926. A3E1 appears in a supplement that was published in 1927 where it is referred to as a ‘Light Dragon MG Carrier’ but since it is written in German much of it is unclear to me. It does however appear to say that the vehicle could climb a vertical step of 0.8 metres and ford to a depth of 1 metre, although how it knows this is not clear and since some of the other details, like the armour thickness being 8 – 10mm are clearly wrong, means that they should be treated with some caution. Next in the book category is The Fighting Tanks since 1916 by Jones, Rarey and Icks, published in the United States in 1933. It describes the vehicle as a Light Dragon Machine Gun Carrier and says that it was produced by Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd. which we know is wrong, while most of the figures quoted are equally dubious such as the trench crossing ability of 7 feet 2 inches, the weight of 11. 2 tons and a new one, the horsepower per ton rating of 5.4. They also state that the suspension was the same as that fitted to the Vickers Medium, which we suspect is wrong and that the crew communicated by means of Laryngaphone which is entirely possible although they are the only ones to mention this. However it is that description of it as a Light Tank, Dragon, Machine Gun Carrier that seems to be the most telling, as if those responsible for describing it didn’t really know what it was at all. A Light Tank, well maybe but a very odd one with a machine gun turret at each end, Dragon, very doubtful since the term dragon was normally used to describe an artillery tractor and this machine does not appear to have had a towing hook at the rear and in any case the engine hardly seems powerful enough to pull itself along, never mind anything else. And a Machine-Gun Carrier, well hardly since one of the normal features of an MG carrier was the ability to dismount weapons for external use; you could not easily do that with these guns, sealed as they were in little turrets, so if anything it was a light tank, but a very peculiar one. A point made by B. T. White in his British Tanks and Fighting Vehicles (1970) where it gets a brief mention. So as a historical oddity we have to leave it there, with two rather meaningless contemporary descriptions. Now it is time to turn and see what one or two more recent writers have had to say about it. Not that there are all that many of them. George MacLeod Ross, the arch apologist for the Royal Ordnance Factory, in The Business of Tanks (1976) doesn’t mention A3E1 at all, which might tell us something. Nor is it mentioned at all in Janusz Magnuski’s classic Wozy Bojowe of 1964. Chamberlain and Eilis, attempting to cover all possibilities, include it in their Pictorial History of Tanks of the World (1972) as a light tank and again in Making Tracks (1973) where it is listed as a machine-gun carrier. In the latter, by the way, it repeats the hint in the 1933 American book that it has the same box bogie suspension as the Vickers Medium tanks, but more of that anon. It also qualifies for an entry, and a picture no less, in Bob Icks and Duncan Crow’s Encyclopedia of Tanks (1975) but that adds nothing to what we know about it at all. Which is about all you will find on it anywhere, well at least anything fairly informative. All we can do now is comment on what we can see. To begin with the engine appears to be located more or less amidships, not at the rear as one source suggests, but it does drive the rear track sprockets. The driver has his head inside a small, armoured cube at the front on the right, with a machine-gun turret alongside to the left. This not only obscures the driver’s view to his left but rather limits the traverse of the turret to the right. The rear turret, on the other hand, has a fairly wide arc of fire given that, in its normal position it is pointing in the wrong direction. Both turrets were probably manually traversed. The ability of the rear gunner to communicate with the other two men at the front, except by the unearthly tones of the Laryngaphone, is almost non-existent as far as one can see. He appears to have been more isolated than the rear gunner in a bomber. The matter of the suspension is quite interesting. Given that any kind of suspension on a tracked, armoured vehicle was still quite an innovation in 1926 one might expect it to be given more detailed coverage. The possibility that it was of the Vickers box bogie type seems unlikely, given that there is no evidence of vertical tubes enclosing springs and we suspect a system of individual pairs of rollers on trailing arms, working against short, coil springs as used later in the ROF’s A7 series tanks. This would have been quite a novelty in 1926 so it seems very strange that it is not mentioned. The other odd feature is the prolific use of return rollers, five on each side to support the track. It is tempting to link A3E1 with A1E1, the Independent since they were more or less contemporary and both adopted a layout of scattered turrets. Both were also rather long and narrow come to that, which should have made them difficult to steer, but they were built by different organisations for a different purpose so it seems that any connection is purely coincidental. And that, as far as it goes, is about all we can say concerning this strange vehicle. By the time it was apparently consigned to the scrap heap in 1929 the first real light tanks had started to appear from Vickers Ltd. (Vickers-Armstrongs from 1928), far more practical machines in every respect.
  2. David Fletcher MBE, former Tank Museum Historian, presents another in a series of exclusive articles inspired by the historic documents and photographs held in the Archive. Above: A Tetrarch practising disembarkation from a Hamilcar glider. In action there would not be time to create that ramp of sandbags, the tank would just come rolling out and never mind the consequences. Today we can take it for granted that aircraft are available, the Americans and Russians have them, that can load a 58 tonne main battle tank, lift it into the air and fly it more or less as far as you like. And yet it was just seventy years ago, within the lifetimes of some of us, when airborne tanks were used in action for the first time, on D-Day of course, 6th June 1944. The tanks they used then were Tetrarchs; A17 Light Tank Mk VII that weighed 7.5 tons, carried in General Aircraft G. A. L. 29 Hamilcar Gliders which had to be towed into the air and then towed as far as they needed to go and cast loose close to their landing zone, the towing aircraft preferably a Handley-Page Halifax. Many of them left from Tarrant Rushton airfield, not far from here, on the early evening of D-Day to reinforce those who had landed earlier. The Hamilcar was not an attractive aircraft but apparently it flew very well. It was fitted with a large hinged door in the nose, for loading and unloading, while the undercarriage consisted of two large wheels attached to the sides of the fuselage with long oleo-pneumatic shock absorbers which could be deflated to bring the fuselage down to as near ground level as possible. Failing that, if the undercarriage was damaged, ash strips beneath the fuselage acting as skids held the plane steady as it skidded to a halt. Left: A Handley-Page Halifax towing a Hamilcar at an official demonstration. The glider still has its undercarriage in place. The Tetrarch was a pre-war design, offered by Vickers-Armstrongs as a new generation light tank, but considered by the Army as a light cruiser on account of its two-pounder gun. In the end it became an airborne tank by default, due to its size, not its fighting powers which were negligible by 1944. The three-man crew of the tank; commander, gunner and driver were supposed to stay in their places inside the tank while it was airborn but we know that some climbed out to look at the armada of shipping below, peering through a hole in the floor, although they were back inside, in time for the landing. During the landing the driver fired the tank up so that it would be ready to drive out at soon as the glider stopped. As the tank moved forwards it pushed against a strap which in turn caused the nose door to open and as soon as it started to emerge the entire fuselage tilted forwards but this didn’t matter anymore, the Hamilcar wasn’t going anywhere. In all eight tanks, belonging to 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps were landed, all apparently manned by Royal Tank Regiment crews, other Hamilcars carried different vehicles, for example Universal Carriers which soldiers at the time insisted on calling Bren Gun Carriers. According to the manual each Hamilcar was able to carry two Carriers but, as far as we can tell on the day, only one was on board each plane, otherwise they could carry up to 7983 kg of general cargo. Right: The Tank Museum’s own Tetrarch, a close support version mounting the three inch howitzer. If you look closely it is just possible to see how the tank steers, by bending its tracks. Once outside the glider the tanks were on their own. Most of them ran over discarded parachute lines that became tangled around the suspension and took most of the night to remove but the few that avoided this fate went out on patrol and at least two of these ran into German self-propelled 88mm guns, against which they had no chance at all. Come to that there were very few things in the 1944 German armoury that they could cope with so one is entitled to ask whether there was any point in sending them at all, except for the fact that it could be done. Left: A Universal Carrier having just reversed onto a Hamilcar, up the special ramps at the front. From this angle you get an excellent interior view of the nose door. Even so the operation had at least one unlooked for beneficial effect. The number of gliders and tugs in the air was astounding and is remarked on by many pilots. The sight, as they swept in to land was even more impressive and as much as it lifted the spirits of British troops already on the ground it dismayed the German defenders. Particularly the men of 21st Panzer Division aiming for the coast near Lion-sur-Mer, before Sword and Juno beaches linked up. Observing the great mass of aircraft landing in their rear they had visions of being cut off and decided to withdraw instead.
  3. David Fletcher MBE, former Tank Museum Historian, presents another in a series of exclusive articles inspired by the historic documents and photographs held in the Archive. Mention the name Delaunay-Belleville to anyone in France, anyone who knows about cars that is, and they will tell you that, up to 1914 at least they were regarded, like Rolls-Royce, as the best cars in the world, probably better even than the Rolls-Royce. In 1914 three of them, probably on a 40hp, six cylinder chassis, were acquired by the Royal Naval Air Service for conversion to armoured cars and, since some new information appears to have come to light on them it is probably time to tell their story. The new information which comes from a recently published book on Russian armoured cars by Maxim Kolomiets concerns a chap named Arthur Nickerson who we believe was a Royal Naval Air Service man. He is already known, or at least is believed to be the designer of the turrets fitted to Rolls-Royce armoured cars but now the suggestion is that he designed the turret for the Delaunay-Belleville as well, which opens up a whole new dimension to the saga. You see all the evidence, such as it is, points to the Delaunay-Bellevilles having been armoured in France, probably by the firm Forges et Chantiers de France at Dunkirk. That was the firm Commander Charles Samson used for all his armoured vehicle projects. It seems possible that the cars were designed to Samson’s order, he had recently started to receive armoured cars designed by the Admiralty but he didn’t like them very much because they were open at the top and offered precious little protection to the crew. It may be that he had the turreted cars built to show what could be done, however Forges et Chantiers had no access to real armour plate so the odds are, if they built the Delaunay-Bellevilles, that they were built of boiler plate, not genuine armour plate. It also suggests that if Nickerson designed the turrets he was based in France too, and probably one of Samson’s men. When Samson left France he brought many of his armoured cars home with him and the three Delaunay-Bellevilles were among them. They formed part of Number 14 Squadron of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, along with three Clement-Talbots, six Rolls-Royces and three Seabrook armoured lorries. They were based at Barlby Road, North Kensington, the Headquarters of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division. Two of the armoured cars remained as they were, for how long we don’t know, but the third had an interesting and in some ways influential history. In the summer of 1915 this car had its armoured body removed and the body, without its turret, was placed onto an imported American tractor, a Killen-Strait. In that form it became, for a while, the first tracked armoured vehicle, a forerunner of the tank although whether it counts as an actual tank is a bit doubtful. The chassis of this armoured car then became a light truck, or what the Navy would call a tender, for general use in the London area. It must have lasted quite a while because in 1917 it was being driven by Lieutenant-Commander Toby Rawlinson RNVR, brother of General Sir Henry Rawlinson. Toby Rawlinson was in command of a mobile anti-aircraft battery charged with the air defence of London and on this particular day he was driving the Delaunay-Belleville on a visit to Foulness Island on the East Coast near Southend, where some of his guns were stationed. Driving across the tidal causeway Rawlinson passed on the wrong side of a marker post and the vehicle became trapped in the mud. Rawlinson jumped out and ran for it but the car was overtaken by the incoming tide and sank out of sight. Never to be seen again.
  4. It’s always a real treat when a new photograph turns up, especially when it comes ‘out of the blue’ and particularly in my case if it features the sort of vehicles I am interested in. This one, although perhaps not as sharp as it might be, is a case in point. It came to us from Mr Terence O’Neill of Lacock in Wiltshire and features, as you can see, a selection of Rolls-Royce armoured cars which seem to have halted in the village for a rest. The photograph was taken by Mr O’Neill’s grandfather and very appropriate too, since Lacock is virtually the home of photography in England. The interesting thing from my point of view, is the selection of vehicles at the head of the column. Right at the front is a Rolls-Royce, 1920 Pattern Mark I armoured car, in original condition. But behind it is one that has been modified to Mark IA standard. There are three major points of difference. Firstly, the armoured strips across the bonnet, intended to deflect incoming bullets away from the driver’s visor. Secondly, the way the Vickers machine-gun has been fitted to the turret in a bullet proof ball mounting instead of the more open style of mounting fitted to the unmodified 1920 pattern cars, and finally the large, oval cupola on top of the turret to give the car commander a bit more headroom and enable him to see outside in reasonable safety. This car also has the oval device on the side of the hull which should tell us that it belonged to the Royal Tank Corps and include its specific War Department number. The third car in the line-up is another Rolls-Royce but this time of the 1924 Pattern with a revised type of armoured hull and a new style of turret. It was one of the last batch of Rolls-Royce armoured cars built for the British Army, all on the 50/60hp Silver Ghost chassis. The 1924 Pattern cars also featured the machine-gun in a ball mounting and a cupola on top of the turret but the style of these makes the car instantly recognisable. The line-up of these three armoured cars is very unusual and most distinctive, as far as one can tell the other two armoured cars, further down the line, are both standard 1920 Pattern types and beyond them is a lorry, too surrounded by people to allow accurate identification but certainly a typical 6x4 in the 30 cwt class and therefore probably a Morris-Commercial. So what are they doing there, why are they parked outside the Abbey in Lacock at all? Well to be honest we don’t know, but two possibilities suggest themselves. Given the variety of vehicles they could be on a training run from Bovington, something designed to give the commanders some navigational experience and the drivers a bit of practice and accustom them to driving in convoy. The other possibility is that they are working with the Experimental Mechanised Force which took part in a military exercise on Salisbury Plain in 1928 and spread over most of Wiltshire. In that case the cars would belong to 3rd Battalion, Royal Tank Corps which was stationed at Lydd, in Kent. However if that were the case the mixture of cars seems a bit unlikely. So can we date the event? If it is the Mechanised Force then it must be the summer of 1928 but if they have driven up from Bovington it could be any time after 1924, when the third car in the line-up (and probably the Mark IA come to that) began to enter service, we cannot be more precise then that. http://www.tankmuseum.org/ixbin/indexplus?record=ART4161&_IXMENU_=news_and_events
  5. I’ve been doing some work on early American tanks lately, and came up with one that seems to be a bit of a puzzle, at least it seems that various authors are undecided on whether it was the real thing or not. The tank in question was apparently built at the Holt Manufacturing Company’s plant at Stockton, California, and made its first, and probably only, public appearance on 18 April 1918. The occasion was the visit to Stockton, California, by Colonel Ernest Swinton (Major-General in 1919, Sir Ernest from June 1923). Swinton was on a lecture tour of the USA and took time out to visit Stockton, to reinforce his claim to being the inventor of the British tank. While Benjamin Holt wanted his company’s part in the evolution of the tank to be emphasised at the same time, so that in a sense both individuals wanted to use the visit to their own ends, but for different reasons. In this picture (above) Benjamin Holt, looking suitably patriarchal is standing alongside Swinton who is making a proper Charlie of himself by saluting the little tank. Of course whether you regard Swinton as the inventor of the tank or not, the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors certainly didn’t, but as to being the initiator of the idea of the tank, that’s a different matter. Holts also displayed one of their big 75hp tractors which Swinton always claimed had been his initial inspiration for the tank concept, the British Army had used about 1,500 of these during the war but mostly as heavy gun tractors. But to get back to that little tank. Certain authors, who shall remain nameless, seem to regard it as the genuine article since they include it in their catalogues of vehicles, whereas Reynold M. Wik, who wrote a history of Holt tractors, and who ought to know, refers to it as a ‘mock baby tank’. It was apparently powered by a motorcycle engine and had tracks built up from chain with track links made from wooden blocks. It was designed to look like a First World War British tank in miniature and presumably had a crew of just one man, who was very squashed up inside. The guns it mounted were all dummies and would have to be, unless they were served by a crew of very small midgets. One curious thing about it was that when it first appeared, before Colonel Swinton and Benjamin Holt and his assembled staff at the Stockton works, it had the simple word HOLT printed vertically down the side of the left sponson. However when it appeared on another occasion the word HOLT had been replaced by the legend H.A. 36 on the sponson (above) and across the front, which must mean something to somebody, and with the word CATERPILLAR in wavy letters on the side of the hull ahead of the sponson and behind. Now Caterpillar had been a registered trade name used by Holts since before the First World War, so referring to the Holt 75 as a Holt Caterpillar Tractor was perfectly acceptable but in 1925, after Holt amalgamated with Best, it formed the Caterpillar Tractor Company, a name by which it has been known ever since. Whether the little tank survived that long we don’t know, nor what became of it in the end. Maybe it still survives somewhere, even today, and if so this would be the time to bring it out, with 100 years of the tank about to be reached.
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