ARE WE OUT-TANKED ?
By S. S. HAMMERSLEY, M.P.
WITHIN the limits of a short article it is not possible to assess exhaustively the relative qualities of all the tanks of the Allied and Axis Forces. This article deals only with British tanks, and more specifically with their mechanical development. The fighting power of our armoured units in the field is most powerfully assisted by tanks manufactured in the U.S.A. and Canada—tanks whose design in the more recent productions owes a good deal to British experience. Stewarts, Grants, Lees, and Shermans hail from the States. Canada gives us the Rams. All are essentially develop- ments from one basic medium chassis, each embodying improve- ments over its predecessors, and culminating in the 32-ton Sherman, with its 75 mm. high velocity gun and all-round traverse. The Sherman is now rolling off the production-lines in vast quantities, and no picture could be even reasonably complete which failed to point out the important role which large numbers of these reliable tanks can play in the battles of the future.
British tanks in use on overseas service with the British Army are: Matildas (infantry tanks with thick armour weighing 27 tons, principal armament a 2-pounder) ; Crusaders (fast cruiser tanks, comparatively lightly armoured, originally carrying a 2-pounder, now carrying a 6-pounder, weight about 19 tons) ; Valentines (reliable, though rather light, fighting vehicles, armed with a 2-pounder and weighing about 17 tons). All these belong to what the Prime Minister would call the Belisha vintage, i.e., their design was commenced before the war. They obviously cannot represent the last word in tank construction, and they call for little comment beyond the observations that their mechanical reliability is now greatly improved, and that all are useful fighting weapons within the limits of their capabilities. Included in the post-Belisha vintage there is the Churchill. A small number of Churchills have been in action in Libya, and a larger number are reported in Tunisia. Churchill tanks are well protected. Their frontal armour is par- ticularly thick. Designed originally to carry a 2-pounder, they now mount a 6-pounder gun. In the latest version they weigh about 41 tons. On the merits and de-merits of these tanks much has been said. The Army in England have trained with them for a considerable time ; a number have been in the possession of the enemy since Dieppe. There is therefore no longer any military necessity to refrain from a frank assessment of them.
In the middle of 1941 Churchill tanks were coming off the production-line. In the closing months of that year grave anxiety as to the serviceability of these tanks was prevalent in informed
Parliamentary circles. This anxiety resulted in the Minister of Supply and the Secretary of State for War jointly receiving a Parliamentary deputation in December, 1941. The weaknesses of the A.22 (Churchill tank) were admitted and explained. They were
summed up in the phrase: "Lack of mechanical reliability." An undertaking was given by thz: Director of Tank Design that modi- fications were well under way, and that within a reasonable time (February 1st, 1942, was the date in view) the Churchill tank would be battleworthy. This undertaking was not realised, though some improvement was made. Subsequently it was decided that all Churchill tanks must go back into the workshop to be re-worked. At one stage in this doleful history Churchill tanks were being manufactured in order to take their place behind a queue of other Churchill tanks waiting entry to other works for hundreds of modi- fications. To cut a long story short, for nearly two years Churchill tanks have been worked and re-worked—modified and re-modified- and now at last it is possible to believe that the Churchill tank may prove in action to be " a powerful and massive and serviceable weapon of war."
The plain fact is that the Churchill tank ought never to have gone into production without adequate testing of the prototypes. It is not sufficient excuse to say that there was no time. In 1941 Churchill tanks could not have easily performed the functions of a heavy tank improvised for the defence of this island, because such tanks as were then made possessed an extremely limited radius of action. In January, 1942, the 'House of Commons was told in public session that the Churchill tanks then being produced were unserviceable. The question was asked: " Is there any limit to the number which are to be turned out in a condition which is admittedly unsatis- factory? " The responsible Minister threatened to move the House into secret session. The matter was not pursued. No answer was forthcoming. Throughout 1942 a strenuous effort was made " to get the bugs out of the machine," and, at a later stage, to fit it with a 6-pounder instead of a 2-pounder gun. Latest reports are that the mechanical reliability of the Churchill tank is now at least as high as many of our other tanks, and that the mounting of the 6-pounder gun has been greatly improved. The Army and the public may therefore feel reasonably satisfied that modern Churchills can achieve the performance for which they were designed.
The question that agitates th- public mind is : Can Churchill tanks take on any tank that the enemy may put against us with a reasonable assurance of success? Our 6-pounder is easily outranged by the 88 mm. gun mounted on the German Mark VI. The German gun fires a projectile of about 20 lbs., intended for use against armour. It also fires high explosive shells for anti-personnel work. Clearly the Churchill tank is not intended to be our last word. The Prime Minister, indeed, told us in July that a later tank had been designed, possessing greater speed, and that plans had been made to put it into early production. It was of this tank that the Secretary of State for War said in September : " We have now tanks coming into production better than ever before." In the opinion of the Minister they are better than anything produced by the enemy— better than any tank in the world. This is good news. Is it correct news? It would be interesting to know a little more about this world's best tank, referred to as A.27. There are at least two varieties of A.27, one variety having an engine of approximately half the horse-power of the other variety. It is to be hoped that the bulk of the production will be of the type with a more powerful engine, otherwise these new tanks may not possess the speed the Prime Minister hinted at in July. Both varieties of A.27 are cruiser tanks and should by this time be in the possession of the Forces.
Assuming—as we arc justified in assuming from the statements of Sir James Grigg—that the A.27 cruiser tanks show marked superiority over any other cruiser tank hitherto produced, we have to ask : "Will this expected superiority in cruisers be effective and sufficient? " We cannot gamble on winning tank battles with cruisers alone. It is clear that this year we must have some tanks armed with a gun that is superior to the German 88 mm. gun. Any tank to mount such a gun must be a heavy tank. The answer to the question : " Are we out-tanked? "—using the question in the limited sense in which it is used in this article—is to be found in a consideration of the specification of our latest heavy tank and the date this essential tank will be available for service with the Forces. Class for class, our tanks are as good as the enemy's, but the Germans have again got ahead of us in the " battle " or " big-gun " class. To specu- late beyond this point would not be in the public interest. We know that the German heavy tank, weighing about 6o tons, is armed with an 88 mm. gun and two heavy machine-guns. There are also a number of Russian heavy tanks, of which one mounting a 15o mm. gun is probably the largest.
We began this war well behind Germany in tank construction. Since then British tanks have greatly improved, but there is still little physical evidence that we have overtaken the lead. In November there was a new regime in the Tank Department of the Ministry of Supply, and everyone is anxious that the new organisation should be given a chance to get into its stride without undue criticism. However, time presses. The enemy does not wait for us to perfect our plans. There are many pertinent questions to which favourable answers must be given if we are to out-tank the enemy. Do the General Staff lay down forward design specifications embodying what is reasonably attainable and based on a forward view of the strategic requirements of the Army? For instance, are all our new tanks required to conform to a definite standard of mechanical reliability? Are they all fitted with an easily operated gear-change? Do a proportion of our tanks mount a large-calibre gun, capable of firing both solid shot and high explosive? • Is the design department too much under the thumb of one man? A more eclectic yardstick than that of the engineering experience of one firm (first-class though that firm undoubtedly is) is required. Are forward design development plans (based on the requirements of the General Staff) laid down for a long time ahead? Are these design-developing objectives put before a number of suitable firms? Or is there an arbitrary restriction of tank-design development to a chosen few? Is it appreciated that the function of the tank-design department should be to guide, to check and to encourage design, and not itself to design tanks?
There is no doubt that many of our tank troubles in the past have arisen from too low a standard of engineering practice. In some parts of a tank we can afford wide tolerances ; in others, unless the work is to close limits, trouble is bound to ensue. This points to the necessity for greater supervision and closer inspection, both very difficult things to do when engineering standards are falling owing to dilution of labour. Is our tank-production organisation fully alive to all these facts? I realise, of course, that the points raised in this note have been or are being considered. The country is waiting for results.