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Centenary of Tanks. Crompton’s and McAfee’s Vehicles

In February 1915, a group of British engineers and naval officers worked on experimental development of a new combat vehicle, the wonder weapon of World War I. They formed the Landships Committee at the Royal Admiralty. Many inventions saw the light—they were incredible on paper and inapplicable at war.

Yet, there were inventors, whose projects got “stuck” on the very verge of success. Good examples are projects of experienced inventor, Colonel Rookes Crompton and Naval Air Officer Robert McAfee, the young talent. Their vehicles actually resembled tanks of the future. Unfortunately, the fate of their inventions was sad. Crompton was just unlucky, while McAfee’s vehicle became a subject to a real scandal.

Rotating turrets, front-facing machine gun, the front-wheel drive of Crompton’s and McAfee’s vehicles found their place in tanks of future

On March 20, 1915, Crompton presented to the Landships Committee a vehicle that shared its name with the first tank—Mark I. It was a 12 metre long carriage with side compartments intended for transporting infantry. The vehicle should have been driven with Diplock’s invention, the so-called “pedrail wheel”, with one pedrail used instead of two tracks. Crompton decided to use one wide band under the vehicle's bottom. The Landships Committee approved the project and was going to order 12 prototype models.

Then, members of the Landships Committee made a trip to the frontline in France. The Command did not allow the “naval” guests to the frontline. However, Crompton saw enough, specifically the terrain several miles from the frontline. The Colonel realized that his vehicle would not be able to drive across such terrain.

Like a magician who performs the trick with the saw and box (also known as "sawing a woman in half"), Crompton cut his vehicle into two pieces and put them together with a joint—it was a variant of the Mark II. Crompton decided that a “broken” vehicle would overcome shell craters much more easily. He also replaced Diplock’s suspension with more practical tracks. Everything seemed to be ready for creating the model in metal, but the situation changed.

The Landships Committee demanded new changes. Instead of an armoured transport for infantry, Crompton should have developed a combat vehicle. This is how the Mark III saw the light, notable for its rotating turrets and machine guns in the frontal glacis. The vehicle had the features of a tank. The inventor finished his work on the third model on July 1, 1915. Unfortunately, the joint between the two sections remained, which was a vulnerable point of the vehicle.

Two months later, two misfortunes happened to Crompton: his son was wounded during frontline combat and the Committee decided that the Colonel’s project was to be discontinued. Crompton suggested his services in other fields, but his attempt was not successful. Perhaps, it was in vain: Crompton’s engineering solutions were interesting and who knows what he would create if he had more time.

From Workshop to Court 

The Landships Committee suffered and survived several scandals. Robert McAfree, a Naval Air Lieutenant, became the main victim of such a scandal. He was fond of tracked vehicles and was one of those who brought his project to the first meeting of the Committee.

He missed the following meetings, though. However, he somehow received £700 for his project from the Commander of the Armoured Division of the Royal Naval Air Service. In 1915, the amount was rather significant. McAfee was going to spend the funds on mounting tracks on an old 5-ton truck from the “Alldays” company. The Lieutenant shared his idea with another inventor, Murray Suetter, who helped the young enthusiast find a production base at a small company, “Nesfield and Mackenzie”. This is where everything started.

McAfee got down to work with enthusiasm, but the company’s head, Albert Nesfield, took a dislike to him. Nesfield wrote to high officials demanding to send McAfee away or replace him with someone else. At the same time, Nesfield was working on his own vehicle with two track pairs, the front tracks should have been used for controlling the vehicle.

Nesfield made several miniature models and presented them to the Landships Committee on July 1, 1915. Angry McAfee broke into the meeting and accused Nesfield of stealing his work. An important military-technical enterprise was going to come down a criminal case and lawsuits.

It was hard to determine who was right. Nesfield actually attempted to patent his project without knowledge of McAfee, who, in his turn, abused his position and kept all materials. Judging from the preserved documents, there were differences between the prototypes. For example, McAfee’s vehicle had the steering wheel at the rear part of the vehicle. Another difference is even more important: creators of the vehicle that became the apple of discord were the first to mount the driving wheels at the front and increase the crossing capacity of the vehicle. McAfee–Nesfield’s vehicle was not designed for mounting armament; the vehicle only featured loopholes for small arms.

This vehicle, more than the Committee's other vehicles, resembled the future of British armoured vehicles. I.e., despite the conflict, over six weeks of work McAfee and Nesfield advanced more than other engineers. Perhaps, under other conditions, the heads of the Committee would allow them to work further, but the scandal always remains a scandal. Each of the opponents received £500 for their work and the project was discontinued.

In the summer of 1915, the Conservative Military Command evaluated the activity of the Landships Committee with explicit skepticism. For example, the Commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, Ian Hamilton said: “This trench war does not require much technical knowledge. A high morale and a healthy stomach are the most important”. These words did make sense: the inventors could not find the right solution; they seemed to have wasted time and money.  

As the Landships Committee looked for a way out, armoured cars advanced to the battlefield and for a while they seemed to have been the solution, but the decision remained tanks were not needed.

Sources:

  1. Fedoseev S. Tanks of World War I. M, 2012.
  2. Fletcher D. The British tanks 1915-19. Ramsbury, 2001.
  3. Glanfield J. The Devil’s Chariots. Osprey, 2013.
  4. Pedersen B. A. What kept the Tank from Being the Decisive Weapon of World War One? Thesis for the degree of Master of Military Art and Science. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2007.
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