Wednesday 4 February 2015

World of Tanks History Section: Tank Spies of the First World War

When the first British MkI tanks reached the battlefield, intelligence workers all over the world found their hands full. Placed as observers, military attaches, or as spies behind enemy lines, agents began exploring the topic of "land battleships". Since 1910, intelligence and counterintelligence in Russia was controlled by the Special Department of the General Quartermaster of the Chief Directorate of the General Staff. Its office was the one receiving information from foreign agents.

After the debut of tanks in September of 1916 at the Somme, Russian intelligence passed on information found in British press on these new events. Their opinions were, at first, very critical. For instance, a message written on December 10th, 1916: "All data on English tanks, both from a mechanical and a tactical point of view, shows that they do not present a significant interest, which is further confirmed by the English abandoning them". When he talked of abandonment, the author meant that British engineers already began work on modernization of the first tank and other types of this weapon.

Scepticism to Interest

Two months is not a lot of time. However, it was a new year, and tank building made a step forward. One Russian military attache was able to attend British tank trials. His report was different from previous ones: "Trials were carried out on clay soil, soft from rain, with a fairly sound foundation. Tanks crossed huge steep holes up to 8 feet deep, a robust parapet, and an ordinary brick English house. The tank broke up its walls and crossed over the wreckage ... Trials went very well." The use of the word "tank" as a feminine word is curious, but remember that the English word "tank" came into military use only a few months before that. It will be a while before it enters the vocabulary of people all over the world.

In this document, another section is of interest. "Tanks have been improved compared to what I saw in September on the English front." As it is unlikely that an agent would confuse early fall of 1916 with November, this means that Russian intelligence already knew about its ally's work on tanks long before they were used in battle.

The message included news that the vehicles were armed with Lewis guns. It can be said without a doubt that the nameless scout observed MkIV tanks, as they were the first to carry these weapons. Their side and top armour was improved. It is important to note that these tanks arrived to the front lines in April of 1917, and fought their first battle on June 7th. Again, Russian military intelligence was aware of the newest vehicles months before they reached the battlefield.

Behind Enemy Lines

The most interesting intelligence work was targeting German tanks. One of the residents wrote: "Various sources report that there are two types of tanks, big and small... Tanks have a rounded shape in front, with a 35 degree slope."

The Germans indeed had a number of tank designs, but this description matches the famous Colossal. The same title would be given to Krupp's superheavy gun that shot at Paris in 1918. A weapon of such magnitude was needed on tracks. The Colossal, or K-Wagen, was created as a superheavy breakthrough tank that would sweep away French defenses with its 150 tons of mass.

The rhombus shape of British was smoothed out to armoured ovals in the front and rear. The project was approved at the end of June 1917, and not even a model was made until next year. Thanks to intelligence professionals, Russian high command obtained sketches of the Kaiser's "vengeance weapon".

They also retrieved information on another German tank which actually got to fight: the A7V. "Another type [of tank] was very large, the size of a railroad car", an agent in Ogenkwar wrote. This was a good comparison. The 30-ton tank was also symmetric, and carried a record of 18 men. Each one had it rough due to the heat inside the tank. The heavyweight A7V was clumsy, heavily armoured, and had poor visibility and cripplingly small firing angles, even worse on the MkI. Only 20 of these tanks were built, and they had little influence on the battlefield of WWI.

Kamikaze Tankettes and the best anti-tank weapons

Russian intelligence also intercepted information about German work on early transporters of explosive charges, something like Borgward tankettes used in WWII. "Sources indicate that the Germans propose the use of small automobiles, akin to English "tanks", to destroy enemy wire and trenches. Loaded with explosive or poisonous substances, they are directed towards the enemy with no crew. The explosion is controlled by a clockwork mechanism", one agent wrote.

There is only one vehicle of this type known to be built in WWI, the French Torpille Terrestre, or "land torpedo". Controlled by wire, this tankette would approach enemy lines and destroy them with explosives. A prototype was built in 1915, but that was it. It is difficult to say what the German analogue would have been like, as information is lacking.

Obviously this information on new tanks caused development of methods to fight them. Here, specialists of the Entente matched each other. "Our artillery, same as the English, is considered the main method of combat with heavy armoured cars." The 37 mm trench cannon firing AP grenades at short ranges was considered the most effective weapon.

It is known that the Russian military had no tanks. However, Austrian WWI reports include a mention of Russian attacks on Austro-Hungarian positions at Bukovina, allegedly supported by two tanks. These were likely Garford armoured cars equipped with cannons, but the enemy faced those before, and it is difficult to confuse tracked and wheeled vehicles. What could they have been? It looks like another mystery of early tank building.

Sources and literature:
  • RGVIA 802-4-1477
  • S.L. Fedoseev, Tanki Pervoy Mirovoy, Moscow, 2012
  • Das Kriegsjahr 1917; 6. Das Kriegsjahr 1917

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.
Original article available here.

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