Monday, July 15, 2013

Mechanised Force: British tanks between the wars

By David Fletcher

David Fletcher is a noted historian, an expert on armoured warfare and the longest serving employee of Bovington Tank Museum. This is the first of his books I have read and although it was quite dense, I enjoyed it nonetheless. Fletcher lays out the history of British tanks in the mid war period, that is to say from between the first and second world wars when tank designs were prone to wild experimentation, not least in the United Kingdom.

Having more or less invented the tank as a fighting concept, the British had produced hundreds of tanks, in several different designs and types by the end of World War One. Throughout the 1920s and 30s British tank designs came thick and fast and with great innovation, but when the Second World War began, the British had largely been eclipsed by the Germans. In this book, Fletcher touches on how this happened, and to some degree, why. My impression, founded on this book and my general perception of the period, is that the Germans succeeded for the simple reason that they had an overall plan and all their designs worked towards it, where as the British (much like the French) were largely working theoretically. It is interesting to note how often Fletcher describes British design innovations which were picked up by the Germans and developed whilst being ignored by the British government due to costs and/or the problem of having so many conflicting projects with each their own advantages and disadvantages.

Another interesting point raised in the book, at some considerable length, is the small matter of 'technical tunnel vision'. The British it seems were obsessed with engine possibilities, gear boxes, suspensions and transmissions. Throughout the entire twenty year period the British paid very little attention to weaponry or armour. They stuck with 14mm hardened steel for almost every single design, and were disinclined to employ any gun bigger than 47mm. Perhaps most interesting of all is how the only British tank of any distintion in the period, the Vickers Medmium Mk II (as seen on the cover of the book) was quickly cobbled together from various other designs and seems to have existed outside the evolution of British tank design in the mid war period. I have always assumed the Mk II was part of an overall design philosophy and the Mk III was a continuation of it. Not so. The Mk II had very little to do with any other design at all.

An interesting read, I've already ordered three more of Fletcher's books!


Steve-the-Wargamer said...

I always thought (from my reading) that the Germans also benefited from clear leadership as well as their clear target/goal.... everything I read about British tank design between the wars seems to show massive amounts of in-fighting, politic'ing, and a general level of disorganisation.... it's a wonder they managed to build anything!

moif said...

But build they did! I think the British must have built more prototypes between the wars than all the rest of the world put together, and a lot of their designs were good too.

As you say though, there were too many vested interests at play, and the only clear leadership appeared to come from a post war treasury bent on cutting all forms of military spending.

An entrenched cavalry mind set in the army didn't help either.