Saturday 22 April 2017

Infantry Tank Mk.I: the First Infantry Tank

There are many tanks in the history of armoured warfare that were simply unlucky. The British Infantry Tank Mk.I is one of them. Even its name was lost when it became the Matilda due to some historian's error, even though that name applies to a completely different vehicle. As Britain's first infantry tank, it was hopelessly obsolete by the start of the war. Even its thick armour was not enough to survive in a war that it was simply not suitable for.

Renault NC, British Style

The British had bad luck with light tanks from the start. The Light Tank Mk.I, created in 1923, quickly turned into the Medium Tank Mk.I, as it was light only in mass. The Light Tank Mk.II met the same fate, and turned into the Medium Tank Mk.II. Attempts to make a classical light tank with a mass between 5 and 7 tons did not work out.

The British military did not rush to build them, either. The infantry support role was given to tankettes, medium tanks would fight enemy tanks, and heavy tanks with about 25 mm of armour would create breakthroughs. The A1E1 Independent was designed for that role, but its development dragged on, and it turned out insanely expensive. There was no place for light tanks in this structure.

When light tanks appeared in the British army, their concept was radically different than light tanks in any other army. The Light Tank Mk.I built in 1929 was effectively an evolution of the Carden-Loyd Mk.VII tankette, and both vehicles even had the same designers. The task of the light tanks was the same as of the tankettes. They were not exceptionally suitable for infantry support, since their armour only protected them from rifle caliber bullets.

The British army remained skeptical about the Vickers Mk.E, a light tank designed for infantry support. This was due to its comparison to the Light Tank Mk.I. With the same armour, the tank was less maneuverable, and it was evaluated as a "trench sweeper". As a result, trials of this bestselling tank in 1930 ended with nothing.

Infantry Tank A11E1, fall of 1936

A radically different tank school was being developed right next to the British in the early 1930s in France. The French had the opposite situation. Despite many problems, they managed to build a small batch of Renault NC light tanks, but enormous issues prevented production of medium tanks. Even though the French military rejected it, the slow and well armoured Renault NC became the subject of imitation in many other countries. Even though only the Japanese bought it, encyclopedias of the time claim that the Renault NC was used by Yugoslavia, Sweden, Poland, and France.

The hype around the tank grew due to information about the NC-2, with two machineguns, and other similar vehicles, even though most of it was just rumour and fiction. Strangely enough, the British military wanted its own Renault NC.

It is fair to associate the development of infantry tanks with Sir Percy Hobart. In 1934, he was appointed as the commander of the tank brigade that gathered up Britain's tanks. He was also the inspector of the Royal Tank Corps, taking control of the development of prospective armoured vehicles.

The requirements for two new tanks of a new type: infantry tanks. Both had to have armour that was 25 mm thick and a top speed of 16 kph. The first tank would be armed with a machinegun, 7.62 or 12.7 mm. Unlike the second, heavier tank (armed with a 2-pounder or 40 mm gun), the first tank would be the primary means of infantry support. This tank would be produced in greater numbers and act as a mobile pillbox that was not afraid of machineguns or cannons.

The same tank after the first changes. Headlights with protective cases were added, as well as a rear view mirror.

Vickers-Armstrongs and Carden-Loyd companies acted as the contractors. Sir John Carden is often called the creator of the new light tank, but that was not the case. Many talented engineers worked in Carden and Loyd's company, including Leslie Little. As the founders, he began his career as an officer in the British army, and then tried his luck in the automotive industry. Little participated in nearly all designs made by the company and was effectively John Carden's right hand. He was the lead engineer on the new tank.

The tank was designed in difficult conditions. Due to the misery defense budget, only 93,750 pounds Sterling were issued for development. Another limiting factor was the cost of the tank: no more than 5,000 pounds Sterling.

Later, the tank received toolboxes and new observation devices.

Carden-Loyd decided to not reinvent the wheel and use the Renault NC concept as much as possible. The first work on the new vehicle, indexed A11, was presented by John Carden in October of 1935. In this draft, the prospective tank was called Matilda, but this is no more than a code name, and it was referred to as A11 in subsequent documents.

In the initial draft, the tank would use a Horstmann suspension, like Vickers-Carden-Loyd's light tanks. The hull and turret were also different. The tank that we know today appeared later. The long and narrow hull, one-man cast turret, two-man crew, rear transmission, all of this was foreign for British light tanks of the era.

The narrow hull reduced the tank's mass as much as possible. At the same time, the A11 had none of the drawbacks that the Renault NC inherited from the Renault FT. Carden-Loyd engineers did not use a large hatch in the front, opting instead for a one-piece hatch in the roof. The hull was also a lot lower than on the Renault NC. The engine compartment was somewhat wider, since the tank used a V-shaped 8-cylinder Ford engine. This 3.62 L engine only output 70 hp, but according to calculations, this was enough to reach the required speed.

The rear mudguards were the last addition to the A11E1.

The new tank ended up being much wider than the French equivalent. This was largely caused by the suspension. Little decided to reuse the suspension from the Dragon, Medium Mk.IV artillery tractor, based on the Vickers Mk.E. These two infantry support tanks were related after all (even if you forget that the same people designed them). The track link design was also similar.

Thanks to a lower center of gravity and wider footprint, the A11 would not be as susceptible to flipping over as the Renault NC.

Self Propelled Pillbox

A tragedy occurred during the development of the A11. Aside from tank building, Sir John Carden was a fan of aircraft, forking Carden Aero Engines Ltd. in 1935. The hobby turned out to be fatal: the talented engineer died in a crash on December 10th, 1935. This meant the death of Carden-Loyd, especially since it already seemed like a lackey of Vickers-Armstrongs. Little moved to Vickers permanently and continued work on the A11 there.

The lubrication chart of the Infantry Tank Mk.I, which illustrates the overall layout.

The concept of an infantry support tank changed by 1936. It was clear that 25 mm was no longer enough to protect from anti-tank cannons. The French increased the armour of their light tanks to 40 mm in 1934. The Renault R 35 and FCM 36 were built with this thick armour. Even thick thickness was insufficient as far as the British were concerned. Finally, the requirement for the A11's armour was increased to 60 mm.

The prototype built for trials in 1936, indexed A11E1, was a very extraordinary vehicle. With a heavy tank's armour, it had the armament of a light tank. The thickening increased its mass to 11 tons. The overweight tank could not accelerate to 16 kph, no matter how much its creators tried. The speed limit for the A11E1 was 12.8 kph. This did not scare off the military. This speed, comparable to that of the Renault FT, was enough to support infantry.

The first mass production Infantry Tank Mk.I (WD number T.3433, registration number MHM 788), equipped with the Fowler Coulter Plough.

Later, that vehicle received the WD number T.1724 and registration number CMM 880. Changes were made to the running gear during trials. The rear road wheels became fully metallic, since rubber rims wore out easily. The tank received toolboxes in the front and headlights in protective cases. Since the roof of the engine compartment was splattered with mud during movement, small mudguards were added to the rear.

The A11E1 was equipped with an experimental mine clearing device in 1937, designed by John Fowler & Co. The company specialized in tractors and plows, so the device looked like a plow. It was even called that: Fowler Coulter Plough.

Chain drive installed on tanks that were equipped with the Fowler Coulter Plough.

A list of required changes and additions was composed after the trials. In April of 1938, more than a year and a half after trials began, the Ministry of War ordered 60 tanks from Vickers Armstrongs and gave it the official title of Infantry Tank Mk.I. Their WD numbers ranged from T.3433 to T.3492. 60 more tanks were ordered in the end of April, with WD numbers from T.5551 to T.5610.

The first production Infantry Tank Mk.I (WD number T.3433, registration number MHM 788) was equipped with the same Folwer Coulter Plough. Even with the plow removed, you could still tell the engineering vehicle apart due to the chain drive in the rear of the tank. The mine plow idea was considered so good buy the army that a decision was made to convert 70 tanks to use it.

Infantry Tank Mk.I from the first production batch in the 4th Royal Tank Regiment. The eyes painted on the turret are a distinctive feature of tanks from this unit.

Mass production Infantry Tanks Mk.I were different from the prototype. The drive sprocket was different, and the front of the hull, formerly assembled from three complex parts, was now one part. The driver's observation device was also changed, and a Mk.IV observation device was added in the hatch. The turret changed noticeably. The "brows" near the roof were became a lot more subtle. Mounts for smoke grenade launchers were added to the sides of the turret.

Holders for fire extinguishers, tow cables, and other instruments appeared on the side. Production tanks were equipped with the No.11 radio set, with an antenna behind the turret and to the right. The protective casings for the headlights were removed. A rear view mirror was added to compensate for the driver's poor visibility.

Production tank with the WD number T.3443 and registration number MHM 798, view from the rear.

The order was increased to 19 more tanks with WD numbers T.8101-T.8119. Tanks from the second and third production batches differed from earlier vehicles. To start, experience showed that the headlights were placed poorly and that it was possible to shoot them off with the machinegun. The headlights were moved to the front of the hull. The location of instruments changed, and the toolboxes increased in size. The driver's observation device was also changed.

A tank from the second production batch. The different driver's observation device, headlight locations, and toolboxes are visible.

The tank's name deserves a separate mention. Thanks to mistakes of some British historian, the Infantry Tank Mk.I is called Matilda or Matilda I. According to the books, this name allegedly appeared due to Sir Hugh Elles, who took up the post of the Chief of Ordnance in the British army. Allegedly, the tank reminded Elles of a toy duck called Matilda.

This was the official name of the tank. The name "Matilda" appeared in 1941 and was applied to a different vehicle.

In reality, that's just a legend. In truth, Sir John Carden really did use the codename "Matilda" in his draft, but the name was not used in reference to the tank after that. In official documents, the name Matilda appeared only in the spring of 1941, and the Infantry Tank Mk.I could not receive a name at that point, as names were given only to tanks that were still in production. The infantry tank was out of production since August of 1940, and by the spring of 1941 it could only be found in training units. The name Matilda I refers to a different tank.

Wrong Battlefield

According to documents, Vickers-Armstrongs delivered 67 Infantry Tanks Mk.I by the start of WWII. 39 tanks were delivered in the fourth quarter of 1939, and 19 more in the first quarter of 1940. The tanks were used by the 4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiments.

These tanks started the tradition of giving each tank a name. This was a way of marking tanks in a way that allowed the viewer to determine its unit without making out the regimental emblem. Tanks from the 4th RTR received names starting with the letter D, and tanks from the 7th RTR received names starting with G. Tankers from the 4th RTR added a unique element to their markings. Their Infantry Tanks Mk.I had eyes on their turrets, a marking unique to this regiment.

Infantry Tank Mk.I in France, late 1939.

The British military cooled their enthusiasm for mobile pillboxes by the start of WWII. It became clearer and clearer that a tank with just machineguns for armament was obsolete, and even thick armour was not particularly helpful. For this reason, there were no further orders for Infantry Tanks Mk.I, and Vickers only worked on existing contracts. It's not impossible for the British Ministry of War to have wanted to cancel production before the contracts ran out, but there was nothing to replace the Infantry Tank Mk.I with at the time.

The infantry tank armed with a 2-pdr gun did not enter production by the time WWII started. The British weren't doing so well with tank production in general. As a result, any tank that was built was good enough. Also, recall that the Infantry Tank Mk.I filled a unique role, as it was used as a mine clearing vehicle. 14 Fowler Coulter Ploughs were ready by January of 1940.

A few tanks received 12.7 mm Vickers machineguns. Since the armoured casing of that machinegun was the same as of the 7.62 mm machinegun, it is not possible to tell these tanks apart. There is also information that the British worked on re-equipping their infantry tanks with the 25 mm Hotchkiss gun (the French worked on the same project with their Renault FTs). In theory, this would have been possible, but was never implemented in practice.

A tank from the second production batch that still has a driver's observation device. France, spring of 1940.

On May 10th, 1940, the Germans began execution of Plan Gelb. The British Expeditionary Force was not sufficiently equipped with tanks at that time. A large part of the tank forces only made it to France after the German offensive began.

The 1st Army Tank Brigade, which the 4th and 7th RTRs belonged to, was already in France at the time of the invasion. As of May of 1940, the 4th RTR had 50 Infantry Tanks Mk.I. The 7th RTR was had a different structure: 27 Infantry Tank Mk.I and 23 Infantry Tank Mk.II. The latter of those tanks received the name Matilda I in the spring of 1941.

Both units had 12 Fowler Coulter Ploughs, but they were never used in their intended role.

A knocked out Infantry Tank Mk.I. According to the caption, the photo was taken in Cambrai.

Both tank regiments were north of the French town of Arras on May 20th, 1940, which was the site of many fierce battles. The regiments were subordinate to the 50th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Giffard Martel, a key figure in British tank building. The French 3rd Light Mechanized Division, a cavalry unit, was nearby.

One of the best known battles of the campaign began on the next day. The French and British forces were opposed by Erwin Rommel's 7th Tank Division and Theodor Eicke's 3rd SS Division. The SS-men had little contact with the British specifically. They tried to go around the battlefield to hit the enemy in the flank and ran into the French.

The French took some casualties from British anti-tank guns, who mistook their tanks for German ones. The French lost 20 tanks overall, knocking out 9 German tanks (from the 25th regiment of the 7th Tank Division). Eicke lost 100 men killed and 200 captured.

British infantry tanks linked up in two columns. The left column (37 Infantry Tanks Mk.I from the 4th RTR and 7 Infantry Tank Mk.II from the 7th RTR) attacked to the south-west with infantry, going around Arras. General Martel commanded these forces directly. The right column (23 Infantry Tanks Mk.I and 9 Infantry Tank Mk.II, all from the 7th RTR) supported the infantry attack in the south direction.

Initially, the British were successful. The German tanks could do nothing against such thick armour. For almost an hour, the British pushed the Germans back, crushing their AT guns. The SS-men were hit by the right column, and also took losses. 

However, this was not Rommel's first time facing tanks with thick armour. The solution was the same: use 88 mm Flak 18 AA guns from the 23rd AA Battalion. However, these were not the only means against British tanks, as the 105 mm leFH 18 howitzers in the 78th Artillery Regiment were also actively used.

The result was a catastrophe for the British. 47 tanks out of the 76 that participated in the attack were knocked out, and the infantry that they accompanied lost half of their men. The German 7th Tank Division lost 20 tanks, 11 of which were knocked out by the British, as well as a large amount of anti-tank artillery. The Germans achieved strategic victory, since the British and French forces could only insignificantly delay the advance of the 7th Tank Division.

The sad result of the British attack on May 21st, 1940. Tanks from the 4th RTR, destroyed by German artillery.

After Arras, both tank regiments had 2 Infantry Tanks Mk.II and 26 Infantry Tanks Mk.I. On the evening of May 26th, 1940, the British Expeditionary Force received the order to begin evacuation as a part of Operation Dynamo. The 4th and 7th RTRs retreated to Dunkirk, where they took part in covering the evacuating British and French forces. The personnel of both units also evacuated, but their tanks were left in German hands. More than half of all Infantry Tanks Mk.I remained on the fields of France.

The Germans showed little interest towards the British infantry tanks. The tanks were indexed Infanterie Panzerkampfwagen Мк I 747 (e), but they were not even used as training vehicles. Tanks that were collected from the battlefield were sent to warehouses.

12 more Infantry Tanks Mk.I were delivered in the second quarter of 1940. The last two tanks arrived in August. They were not sent to fighting units, since it was obvious that these tanks were not suitable for modern war. The tanks were used for training purposes, but not for long. In 1941, more suitable vehicles appeared in the British army.

Infantry Tank Mk.I from the Polish 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, England, 1941

There is another myth around the Infantry Tank Mk.I worth mentioning. According to some sources, one Infantry Tank Mk.I was sold to Poland in July of 1939, where it was captured by the Germans. A photo of a tank with turret number 834 is shown as evidence, but that is not the case.

The number 834 was painted by the German trophy team. Later, the tank was stored at a warehouse of captured tanks along the French Char D2, which was also not interesting to the Germans. As for the Poles, they did use the Infantry Tank Mk.I after all. Such a tank was used by Colonel Maczek's 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade. This was in 1940, in Great Britain, where the brigade was evacuated from France. These tanks were used by the Poles for training until 1941.

Three Infantry Tanks Mk.I survive to this day. One of them, WD number T.3447, is from the first production batch. It was found at a shooting range next to Otterburn and restored to working order. Instead of its original engine, it uses a modern Rover car engine The second tank, WD number T.8106, is from the third production batch. It was also found at a shooting range, and one tank had to be assembled from two. A third tank was found at the range, which looks like a late model. Since the vehicle was heavily damaged, it was not restored.

All three tanks are owned by the Bovington Tank Musem.

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