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A Hundred Years of Tanks: Land Ironclads - Drawn and Cast

As famous British writer H. G. Wells called the war machines from his sci-fi story “ships”, it was only logical that the design of their real life counterparts would be a Navy project. Thus, on 20th February, 1915, the Landship Committee was created within the Admiralty. Its membersmilitary engineers and navy officers—were true masters of their craft. However, the task turned out to be truly unrivalled in its complexity, and even these experts were unsure on what a Land Ironclad should resemble.

Nevertheless, by the first meeting of the Committee, several projects of the new devastating weapon were prepared. Their appearance was most unusual.

Thomas Hetherington’s Three-Wheeled Behemoth

Thomas Hetherington, Flight Commander of the Royal Naval Air Service was among the first to present his sketches. From blueprint to metal cast, something not unlike a ship on enormous wheels was ready to roll out (Hetherington dismissed the idea of using tracks).

The engineers of the Landship Committee had no real frame of reference for the work to be done. This resulted in creating quite a few monstrosities on the path to creating a true tank.

The proposed dimensions of the war machine were staggering: 14 metres high and twice that size in length. The inventor reasoned that such an enormous beast would be guaranteed a great degree of terrain passability. The machine would have no problem rolling over six metre high walls and pass through water obstacles as deep as 4.5 metres. The design weight of Hetherington’s “ship” amounted to 300 tons. The massive vehicle was to be powered by two 800 horse power diesel engines.

Armaments for this hulking design were no less impressive than its size—six 102mm naval guns mounted onto three turrets, and a dozen anti-infantry machine guns.

The Flight Commander’s sketches were true works of art. The superstructure above the engines, the wheelhouse and helm, the radio-mast—everything was done with great attention to detail. Even every individual step of the rope-ladder was meticulously drawn. The project was a fine sight for the artistically inclined eye.

Alas, a good artist is not necessarily a good engineer. Hetherington failed to account for at least 700 tons of the vehicle’s mass, ignored the miniscule engine power relative to said mass, and gave almost no thought to crew protection. The enormous smokestack increased the already massive silhouette of the land cruiser, making it an easy target for enemy artillery. Survivability under heavy fire was put into question. Needless to say, the project was dismissed, along with similar gargantuan designs:

However, one of these “dinosaurs” did get lucky. The struggle bringing it to life went on for several years, during which the giant underwent many changes. Amazingly—it even got built.

The Sueter-Diplock Ordeal

In March 1915 the Landship Committee began design of a new vehicle, involving Rear-Admiral Murray Sueter and engineer Bramah Diplock (yes, the same Bramah Diplock, whose “Pedrail Wheel” design was mentioned by H.G.Wells in his “Land Ironclads” short story). By then, Diplock had already founded the Pedrail Transport Company which made him a wealthy man. He was responsible for the technical aspects of the project. Sueter was the analyst and idea man.

The Sueter-Diplock design was starkly realistic in comparison to other land ship projects, leading to the creation of its real life prototype. The only roadblock to mass production was the introduction of tanks proper, staking their claim as kings of the battlefield.

The Sueter-Diplock machine consisted of an armoured hull, mounted onto two Pedrail platforms. Each platform sported a single gasoline engine. The platforms were able to rotate relative to one another, giving the vehicle a limited degree of manoeuvrability. The dimensions of this “centipede” were modest compared to the Hetherington project—11 metres long, 4 metres wide. The vehicle would house eight crew members and about a dozen marines. It had no armaments of its own.

The Committee ruled that this project was not only of interest—it was buildable! The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, personally approved the manufacturing order for a dozen Sueter-Diplock machines. The inventors rushed to improve upon their “ship”. They added grenade launchers, an entrenchment mechanism, mechanical barb wire cutters… the project became more complex by the day.

At that time another enthusiast and Committee member—Colonel Rookes Crompton—joined in. An established military man who saw combat, he was no stranger to engineering: installing electric lighting in Windsor Castle, building railroads in India, even (as a side project) inventing the electric kettle.

Crompton expressed a keen interest in the idea of an armoured war machine. However, he reasoned that, instead of a single hull, two separate ones could be used for each platform, and Diplock’s “Pedrail Wheel” should be replaced with a caterpillar track (owing to its superior manoeuvrability and durability). While the three inventors bickered over these details, the vehicle was sent into production without changes. The ordeal, however, was far from over.

By summer the British Ministry of Defence rejected the idea of manufacturing unarmed track based personnel carriers in favour of armed vehicles. The Sueter-Diplock creation was in jeopardy, so the inventors rushed to innovate and improve. They had already prepared several proposals for artillery armaments when Crompton interjected once again. He proposed that each platform be equipped with 360 degree rotating turrets. Once again the brain child of Sueter and Diplock underwent changes. It seemed the project was almost completed, when two events took place. Firstly, the ministry decreased the order volume to a single prototype. Secondly, the “Mark I” by Sir Ernest Swinton made its triumphant debut. The inventors were left with nothing.

Eventually, Diplock and Sueter were able to secure the funds to complete the prototype. However, despite its passable trial performance, the armoured personnel carrier did not attract enough investments to launch its mass production. The prototype of the Sueter-Diplock machine was left to rust in Bovington, before being dismantled and scrapped in 1923.

Though it seemed at the time that Colonel Crompton was but a nuisance to the duo of inventors, he was the one to propose the most crucial innovations—caterpillar tracks and rotating turrets. Moreover the unstoppable Colonel spawned his own veritable cornucopia of design projects.



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  • Travers T. The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front and the Emergence of the Modern Warfare 1900-1918. Barnsley, 1987.