Monday 15 September 2014

World of Tanks History Section: Battle of the Somme

By the fall of 1916, the British and French offensive against the Germans at the river Somme in North France petered out, having set into a positional meat grinder. Both sides tried to tear through a maze of trenches wrapped in barbed wire, fruitlessly. In the first day of the offensive, the British lost 20,000 men dead and 40,000 wounded from machinegun and artillery fire, while the Germans lost 6,000 men. It seemed that there was no way to change the situation.

Steel Ace

As a last ditch effort to achieve success in this long and bloody struggle, the British General Douglas Haig placed his faith in new combat vehicles. To preserve secrecy, they were called "tanks".

The British began making tanks in 1915. By the summer of 1916, the amount of vehicles approached 50. The rhomboid tracked monsters were indexed MkI and MkII, and were made in two modifications. Tanks with only machineguns were called "female", and were meant to fight enemy soldiers. "Male" tanks were equipped with a machinegun and two 57 mm guns.

After transport to the mainland, the tanks were moved towards the front line in utmost secrecy. Nighttime marches in unscouted terrain proved difficult for the MkI; 17 of them were bogged down in mud or suffered mechanical failure. 32 vehicles reached their starting positions.

With their new vehicles, the British expected to knock the Germans out of Guedecourt and Fleur. In platoons of 2-3, the tanks were to penetrate enemy lines in its most powerful sections, covering advancing infantry. The first to enter the battle was Captain Mortimer's "male". It was 5:15 on September 15th, 1916. The tank approached German lines between Ginchy and Delville Wood. It destroyed a machinegun nest that impeded British light infantry, but was then knocked out by an artillery shell to the suspension.

At 5:30, other tanks entered combat. Their crews were suffocating due to fumes, the sound of cannon fire and hammering of bullets against the armour deafened them. It was very cramped inside, next to the spare oil tank, two small gas tanks, three water tanks, spare machinegun barrels, a spare machinegun, a cage with postal pigeons, a signal flag, and a set of signal lamps. Of course, there also had to be room for two days worth of food and the crew's personal equipment.

Germans in shock

In the first years of WWI, psychosis caused by unending artillery explosions (shell-shock) was a common affliction for a soldier. The Germans were even more shocked by the appearance of tanks. When a German screamed "The Devil is coming!" in the first trenches, his words spread like wildfire. Through the tanks' observation slits, one could see many figures in feldgrau uniforms fleeing from their positions. The few brave men that attempted to open fire at these steel monsters were unsuccessful.

The tanks advanced. Far from perfect, they thundered as they fell into German trenches or got stuck in shell craters. Crews had to climb out to attempt to repair the tank. However, those MkIs that were spared this fate performed well.

For instance, the male D17 "Dinnaken" commanded by Lieutenant Hastie was the first to enter the village of Fleurs, slowly following running and hiding Germans. An airplane reconnaissance mission reported "The tank is moving through the main street of Fleur, English soldiers are following it in good spirits".

Other vehicles were of great help to infantry, making holes in barbed wire and crushing machinegun nests. One MkI stopped above a German trench, cleared it with machinegun fire, and proceeded to move along the trench. With its help, approximately 300 enemy soldiers were captured. 10 tanks were knocked out during the attack for various reasons, 7 more received superficial damage.

Local success with serious consequences

How effective was this use of tanks? A certain tactical success, but one that failed to turn the tide of battle.

On one hand, the British moved several kilometers forward over a front of 10 kilometers in only five hours, with minimal losses. Positions were taken that were attacked before, without success. Douglas Haig, who viewed tanks sceptically, ordered an additional thousand vehicles.

On the other hand, the British lost the element of surprise, as the effect from a sudden appearance of these stunning tanks could have been much greater. As it was, the news of their use travelled around the front lines, then around the world. Spies and engineers in nearly every nation participating in WWI got to work.

The Russian Empire did not have time to make its own land battleships, but carefully watched their evolution. Documents of the General Staff contain such reports as this one, for December of 1916: "In Germany, Krupp, Ehrhart, and Hans-Lloyd factories in Bremen are at work making 120 "tanks", for now...only two types. It is expected that they will be used on all fronts, for offence, not defense. The best weapon against these "tanks" is a 3.7 centimeter trench gun."

The word "tank" is used awkwardly. However, events of September 15th, 1916, made "tank" an international word, and assigned to it a military meaning. From that moment on, war took a more modern turn.

Article author: Yuri Bakhurin. Yuri Bakhurin is a military historian, an author of many publications in regional and central scientific press: "Questions of History" magazine, "Military-Historical Magazine", "Military-Historical Archive", "Motherland", "Anthology of War", the "Reitar" almanac, and many more. He is also the author of the "Panzerjager Tiger (P) Ferdinand: Use in Combat" book.

  • F. Mitchell, Tank Warfare. The Story of the Tanks in the Great War, Moscow, 1935
  • RGVIA 802-4-1477, Materials on fighting tanks in the event of their use by foreign powers
  • S.L. Fedoseev, Tanki Pervoy Mirovoy, Moscow, 2012
Original article available here

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