Friday 23 September 2016

World of Tanks History Section: The British Devil and His Brothers

No one could have guessed on September 15th, 1916 that many military theory books would become obsolete in an instant. The first tank entered its baptism by fire, and an unnamed German's cry "The devil is coming!" announced the coming of the new god of war.

French and German tanks came after British ones, but the "rhombus" was the first of the first. Nine tanks belonged to this family. Some of them made it in time for the war, others remained prototoypes. Episodes collected in this article will briefly describe the "rhomboid" family.
Mark I: Overshadowed by the Somme

September 15th, 1916: the day when the first tanks entered their baptism by fire. This effective attack is well known: a foggy morning on the river Somme, the German shock from seeing steel beasts coming out of the gloom, the cry "The devil is coming!" Few mention how the Mark Is fought after, even though in some battles, their effectiveness was even greater than during their debut.

On September 25th and 26th, near Guedecoura and Le Sara, 13 Mark I tanks set out to battle. Even though 12 of them did not reach the enemy, only one Mark I Female was enough to clear out the enemy trenches in less than an hour and capture 370 German soldiers. In another battle, three tanks went into a frontal attack. One was knocked out by German artillery, and two became bogged down, but even the presence of tanks was enough to cause the Germans to surrender. Such was the extent of the tank terror that blossomed among the Kaiser's troops.

To be fair, the tanks only had an overwhelming effect on the Germans for a few weeks after their debut. Soon after, the enemy was no longer afraid of them, and design flaws damaged the tanks' reputation in the eyes of the British themselves.

Mark II and Mark III: Log instead of a tail

Only 100 Mark II and Mark III tanks were built, 100 fewer than the first model. Because of this, they are often referred to as a limited, transitional model, but the "twos" and "threes" had some unique features.

The Mark II got rid of the famous wheeled tail, allegedly necessary to help the tank cross trenches. Legend has it that the tail fell off one tank in battle, but the crew kept driving. It turned out that the rear wheels had no practical value. This shortened the tank by two meters with no damage to the performance. Instead of a tail, the rear of the tank now carried a toolbox. The exhaust pipes which were on the roof of the Mark Is were also moved to the rear.

The Mark III was an attempt to thicken the front armour with applique plates. Even though openings for their mounting were made, the extra armour was never installed. However, the Mark III was the first to carry an unditching beam, affixed to the roof. It was used as a means of freeing a bogged down tank. This measure was surprisingly useful and was used by all tanks in the future.

Mark IV: The first thousand

An order for the Mark IV was drafted in September of 1916, almost immediately after the debut of the "rhombus" at the Somme. The Mark IV had several major changes in its design.

First, the armour was strengthened, so rifle and machinegun fire was no longer a threat to the tank. The sloped shape of the gun sponsons made them stop scraping the ground when the tank was tilted. They were also equipped with special rails that allowed the sponsons to be retracted when the tank was transported via railroad. Unfortunately, the design was fragile. Sometimes in battle the mounting brackets would break and the sponson would slide into the hull, crushing tankers. The fuel tanks were moved to the rear to reduce the chance of fire.

Mark IV tanks arrived in France and entered service by May of 1917. The new tank proved itself well in battle. The armoured giants effortlessly formed wide breaches in barbed wire, bringing infantry forward with them. One tank demonstrated its strength in November of 1917 by breaking though a 1.5 meter tall wall, driving through a fruit orchard, crushing trees, and then demolishing the corner of a house when turning.

The range of a Mark IV tank was still only 100-112 km, but compared to the Mark I, it was a serious step forward.

The Mark IV was a popular design, and over a thousand tanks of this type were built.

Mark IV in battle for Cambrai

In the summer of 1917, the British Tank Corps staff had the idea of a PR tank attack. The tanks would be sent into battle in perfect conditions to show themselves, achieving unparalleled success. The terrain in the north-east of France, near Cambrai, seemed suitable. The plow of war has not yet worked over the landscape, and the ground was dry and firm.

The Mark IV tanks were tasked with penetrating the German Hindenburg defensive line. This was initially planned as a local raid, but grew into a fully fledged offensive.

The tanks were transferred to Lieutenant General Sir Julian Bing's 3rd Army in complete secrecy. The roar of their engines was hidden in machinegun fire. Over a million liters of gasoline and oil and half a million shells were needed for the tanks. All of this was delivered to the close rear in a timely manner.

The beginning of the attack on November 20th, 1917, was reminiscent of a heroic epic. The commander of the Tank Corps, General Hugh Ellis, sat in the head Mark IV and led the other 500 tanks. Tanks tore through barbed wire like a hot knife through butter, covering mile after mile. Hundreds of German POWs marched into the British rear. Then things took a turn for the worst.

The infantry, Highlanders from the 51st Division, was bogged down in battle near Flesquières, at the tip of a hilly escarpment, and fell behind the tanks. The Germans pulled up fresh reserves and opened fire from behind the hills. Mark IV tanks that were attempting to crest revealed their weakly protected floors and burned even from machineguns. The British spearhead shattered, and 10 days later the Germans took back their territory, with interest.

Mark V: The first real tank engine

In late 1917, work on new "rhombus" tanks stalled. In part, this was the fault of weapon manufacturers who feared that tanks will make their rifles, machineguns, and cannons obsolete, and so took every opportunity to impede tank production. However, even the will of "gun barons" could not stop the development of armoured vehicles, and in December of 1917, the Mark V, otherwise known as the "Ricardo tank" was ready for production.

Experience at the front showed that tanks need a more powerful engine that was capable of working through constantly changing load, and one that was simple enough for repairs on the front lines. Engineers could not expect to be allowed to use hardened steel or aluminium: aircraft manufacturers claimed those resources. The first person to develop a real tank engine was Henry Ricardo. His engine fully satisfied the requirements of the military. That and the new Wilson gearbox significantly simplified the driver's life.

More novelties on the Mark V include the light telegraph, which replaced signal flags. From May 1918 to the end of the war, the British army received 400 Mark Vs: 200 each of cannon "males" and machinegun "females".

On April 24th, 1918, the first tank duel came to pass: a Mark V against a German A7V. The battle proved that machinegun tanks are only good against infantry. As a result, some of the tanks had the machinegun in one sponson replaced with a cannon. These asymmetric tanks were jokingly called "hermaphrodites" by the soldiers.

Mark V at Passchendaele: Are tanks afraid of mud?

Early morning on July 31st, 1917, the British army attacked at Ypres in the direction of the French city of Passchendaele.

The terrain in their way was covered in swamps and groves. Even in peacetime, wooden roads would need to be put down for the tanks. Now, when the canal system was destroyed by artillery, even that would not help. The Tank Corps warned that the tanks could not pass through this muck. Nature played a cruel trick on the attackers with strong rains, but no one was going to cancel the attack.

All tanks stopped by mid day. Many of them sank to the sponsons, so even the unditching beams would not help. The Germans did not hesitate to open fire at any stuck tanks. Infantry that followed the Mark IVs and Vs also hopelessly sank in mud. The Germans pulled up Fahrpanzers to fire at the British. German aircraft circled above the battlefield, trying to hit tanks from small heights. A commander from one of the tanks removed a machinegun and started firing at enemy planes.

The British attack on Passchendaele failed, but documents show that the Germans were still afraid of the tanks as they thought they were armed with flamethrowers, a horror for infantry.

Surviving tanks were in repairs until August of 1917.

Mark V in the Hundred Days Offensive

The final stage of the Great War was the Entente's Hundred Days Offensive, from August to November of 1918. It began at Amiens, where the allies decided to return an important transport artery. This was the greatest offensive operation of the First World War that tanks participated in.

The entire tank corps was at the front line. Aside from novelties (Mk.A Whippet medium tanks), 334 Mark V "rhombuses" were ready. On August 8th, 1918, the tanks moved out. Even though cooperation with infantry was still poor enough to force some tank commanders to ride alongside their tanks on horseback, the overwhelming density of 23 "Marks" per kilometer of front compensated for any drawbacks.

The tanks drove at German positions behind the rolling artillery barrage. The German trenches sank in smoke and fog, which impeded anti-tank artillery. Realizing their advantage, British tankers left their vehicles and gestured to the Germans to surrender. German artillery tried to cut off infantry from the tanks by pelting them with "blue cross" sneezing gas, but the barrage did not have an effect.

A quarter of the British tanks were lost on the first day of the offensive, but most of them were combat losses. Only 5% of the tanks were lost to breakdowns. Despite all the attackers' problems, the Germans could not hold. The Hundred Days Offensive ended on November 11th, 1918, by the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne and the surrender of Germany.

Mark VII, the last Anglo-American.

The sixth and seventh modifications of the design did not reach mass production. The Americans decided to assist with the next variant. They entered the war as a part of the Entente in 1917, immediately became interested in tanks, and decided to buy 600 Mark VIes for their own army. After thinking it over, the order was cancelled, but the Americans offered their assistance in developing a new tank. As a result, the Mark VIII did not have time to fight in WWI, as only five tanks were finished by its end. After the end of hostilities, production of the Mark VIII moved entirely to the United States.

The tank looked different from its predecessors due to its suspension. The tracks still wrapped around the hull, but the elongated rear of the tank made it look more like a water droplet than a rhombus. The Americans were a literal breath of fresh air for the tankers: they placed the 338 hp Liberty engine in the rear of the tank, separating it with a bulkhead. The Mark VIII did away with the division between "males" and "females". All sponsons of these tanks carried 57 mm guns, and machinegun armament was placed in a turret on the roof. Plus, machineguns could also be installed in ball mounts on the doors.

Until 1930, the Mark VIII was the only American heavy tank. It never saw combat, and the Americans rarely even sent it out for exercises. When WWII broke out, 90 of these tanks were given to the Canadian army. They were used for training purposes.

Mark IX: A rhombus for infantry

In addition to technical issues, poor coordination with infantry plagued the first tanks in battle. It wasn't that the soldiers didn't know how to fight alongside tanks, but that the tankers were relatively safe behind their armour while the infantry was vulnerable to bullets and shrapnel.

Military engineers reacted to this need by making a personnel carrier. Sponsons were removed, leaving only machineguns in the front and rear. This freed up space for 30 soldiers or 10 tons of cargo to be sheltered by armour. The transporter's crew consisted of four men, and the driver's station was modified to match European right side driving rules. A fan and a tank of drinking water was installed inside for increased comfort. Sadly, the neighbouring scalding hot engine negated those benefits.

Only a handful of Mark IXs existed by the end of the war. One of them managed to reach the Western Front in 1918, where it served as a medical transport. Soldiers nicknamed this rare vehicle "pig".

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