On 15 September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the British Army sent tanks into action for the first time changing the nature of warfare for ever.
The Royal Tank Regiment, which is the oldest tank unit in the world, can trace its roots back to the assault at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme offensive.
A Mark IV tank called Hyacinth, ditched at the battle of Cambrai, November 21st 1917.
The Great War
The first few battles of the Great War were fought by mobile forces that conducted advances and withdrawals across Belgium and France. This all changed in November 1914 when the opposing sides dug the trench line that ran from the English Channel to Switzerland, and the static trench warfare period began. The challenge was to find a way to cross no man’s land, crush the barbed wire, fight their way across the German trench lines and, above all, destroy the enemy machine guns which slaughtered the attacking infantry.
In late 1914, the Imperial Committee of Defence were convinced of the need for an armoured vehicle. Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, agreed although the War Office was initially less keen so the Navy led the way initially. Early prototypes used American Holt tractors tracks but they weren’t up to the task. In 1915 Winston Churchill ordered a number of heavy artillery tractors from the Foster’s agricultural engineering company in Lincoln. It was Foster’s managing director, William Tritton together with the engineer Walter Wilson who designed a pressed steel track plate which could carry the required weight. Wilson also designed an all-round track system which would allow the tank to cross trenches and scale parapets. In September 1915, Fosters demonstrated a wooden prototype and by December a working version, powered by Daimler engine, was trialled at Lincoln.
A Centurion tank gives the infantry a lift during the Korean war.
In late January 1916, the prototype was demonstrated to the War Cabinet and a few days later to the King. An order for 150 tanks was made in February and six tank companies formed in May. The crews were trained on the tanks at a specially built training facility at Elveden in Suffolk. As the production tanks did not arrive until the middle of July, the C and D Companies’ crews had just over a month’s practice before they deployed to France.
The tank today
There are more than 60,000 tanks in operation worldwide at present. In order to keep up with advances in technology, there has been a global trend towards platform capability enhancement through sub-systems upgrades rather than the acquisition of new vehicles. Most improvements are primarily in the areas of lethality and protection, including more effective munitions, enhanced Fire Control systems, increased main armament calibres and Gun-Launched Anti-Tank Guided Missiles. Survivability enhancements will mostly focus on signature reduction technologies, base armour protection, add-on active armour and Defensive Aid Suites. Tactical communications improvements will focus on data capability, allowing greater information dissemination across the network.
The Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank whips up a storm on exercise.
The tank will continue to play a pivotal role in the future and will remain true to its roles: close combat in conjunction with the Infantry, shock action and aggressive mobile action to destroy enemy armour. It will continue to operate in a Combined Arms context but will remain flexible; in order to counter developing threats. Future conflict trends suggest that warfare will gravitate around urban areas. With effective task organisation, tanks supported by Infantry will be able to operate with mutual protection.
The tank is as relevant today and in the future, as it was at its birth during the First World War. Improvements to a tried and tested design will ensure that they continue to play a key and decisive role on the battlefield.