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The British Army’s vehicles: From tanks to transporters


The roads in Britain in the 1930s were seeing increasing numbers of motorised vehicles, particularly cars that were being driven at speed. At the same time, the storm clouds of war were once again gathering over Europe as ever more aggressive noises came out of Germany.

The policy of the British government was to strive for peace at all costs, but behind the scenes a low level of rearmament was taking place, all with the emphasis on speed.

The British motor companies had been asked to create shadow aircraft factories to ensure that aircraft production could continue in the event of attacks on the established manufacturers. The need would be for fast fighter aircraft to defend our shores. It was said that the experience young men gained in driving fast cars greatly contributed to quick reaction when they became pilots.

At the same time, a centre for army mechanisation was being create on the site of the former shell filling factory at Chilwell. This began in November 1934 with a visit to the then derelict site by Lt Colonel Bill Williams who would go on to spearhead army mechanisation.

The vehicles needed would be not only tanks, but also armoured cars, scout cars, armoured carriers, tank transporters, recovery vehicles and gun tractors. Developments had been made since the end of the Great War in tracked and half track vehicles. The gun tractor, for example, needed to replicate as far as possible its predecessor, the horse, to have ‘good cross-country performance, be capable of carrying the gun crew and their equipment, and an initial supply of ammunition to bring the gun into operation’.

In the First World War the tank had been developed by the Royal Navy and manufactured by a number of contractors around the country. In the period following the war the principal manufacturer was Vickers. Yet, it was felt that the dependence on a single manufacturer was unwise and so the group of companies headed by Lord Nuffield was encouraged to develop an alternative. This they did, employing the revolutionary suspension developed by Christie in the US. The result was the Cruiser considered in many ways superior to the Vickers’ Matilda and Valentine, but still vulnerable in action. The tank would go through hundreds of iterations during WW2 in the quest for speed.      

The experience of the German attack in March 1918 and the subsequent Allied advance into Germany had taught that vehicles had to be powerful and capable of covering rough ground at speed. Yet, it was insufficient to have only tanks and armoured vehicles able to do this; the supply vehicles, including mobile workshops, had to be able to keep up. This lesson was learnt again the hard way in the desert war.

Bill Williams and his colleagues realised, from their experience in the previous war, that it was not only a matter of providing vehicles which could travel at speed over rough terrain, but that those vehicles needed to be maintained and repaired quickly in order to avoid the number of breakdowns experienced, for example, by the first tanks in 1916. The centre thus had to maintain a record of each vehicle so that the right spare parts could be provided in the right place at the right time. This resulted in many thousands of such parts being stored and catalogued. 

Speed would also be of the essence in a seaborne invasion. The experience of Gallipoli had taught that supplies must be brought ashore straight after the assault troops. They therefore needed to be light enough to manhandle, but above all they needed to be of those items most likely to be required and easily and quickly identifiable even under heavy fire.

The opening of Chilwell in 1938 was heralded by a mass visit of the British press. They were impressed, but the actual experience of war would test it to the limit.

By Phil Hamlyn Williams

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