Review of Reviews Section

War Office Fought Tanks

They Were “Put Across” Only By Defying Prejudices of Generals Galore

November 1 1919
Review of Reviews Section

War Office Fought Tanks

They Were “Put Across” Only By Defying Prejudices of Generals Galore

November 1 1919

War Office Fought Tanks

Review of Reviews Section

They Were “Put Across” Only By Defying Prejudices of Generals Galore

COLONEL SIR ALBERT STERN, K. B. E., C. M. G., who had more to

do with the success of Tanks than any other man, relates in the Strand how they had to fight the British War Office before they could fight the enemy. Certain support was also given by Sir Eustace d’Eyncourt, Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, which permitted Tanks to be made, though dilatorily, in sufficient quantities to figure largely in the final two months of the war. After relating the inception of the idea of a land car, Major Stern says:

In those days we thought only of crossing the Rhine, and this seemed a solution.

I remember Hetherington proposing to fire shells at Cologne by having a shell which, when it reached the top of its trajectory, would release a second shell inside it, with planes attached, and this second shell would plane down, making one hundred miles in all. It is strange that the Germans later tried and succeeding in firing about eighty miles, but not in this way.

Mr. Churchill came to the dinner and was delighted with the idea of a crosscountry car. He then set up a committee to study the question, and Mr. Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, C. B., the Director of the Naval Construction,

was appointed chairman on the twentyfourth of February, 1915. It was to be known as the Landship Committee. When I took over the duties of secretary of the Landship Committee in April, 1915, Mr. d’Eyncourt was directing affairs, assisted by Major Hetherington, who carried out his instructions, with Colonel Crompton as engineer. On June 16th Mr. d’Eyncourt asked me to reorganize the committee on business lines. This was done and approved by Mr. d’Eyncourt.

At this period no Government department could provide any office accommodation for us, so on June 21st, 1915, I took an office at my own expense at 33 Pall Mall, and installed in it my entire organization, which consisted of myself and Mr. Percy Anderson, at that time a petty officer in the Armoured Car Division. A controversy raged on this subject for six months between the Admiralty, the Ministry of Munitions, and the Office of Works.

The Admiralty referred to it as a troublesome case, and informed the Office of Works that a temporary lieutenant, Albert G. Stern, R. N. V. R., had straightway proceeded to take an office for himself at 83 Pall Mall, and apparently did not understand the subtleties of the procedure in the Civil Service.

On July 2nd, Squadron 20 of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, later to become famous as the “wet nurse” of Tanks, was placed, for this work, under the direction of Mr. d’Eyncourt.

A number of experiments were made, and in August Mr. Tritton, of Messrs.

Foster and Co. of Lincoln, and Lieutenant Wilson had started to draw out a machine on the same lines but of stronger material and better design. On August 26th, Mr. Tritton, Lieutenant Wilson, and I viewed the fullsized wooden model of this machine. It was known as the “Tritton” Machine, and later as “Little Willie.” On the same day, at a meeting at the White Hart Hotel, Lincoln, we discussed fresh requirements which we had just received from the War Office. They asked that the machine should be able to cross a trench five feet wide with a parapet four feet six inches high. Lieutenant Wilson and Mr. Tritton thereupon started work on a type designed to do this. It would, they told me, require a sixtyfoot wheel.

The contour of this sized wheel became more or less the shape of the underside of the new machine, which was called first the “Wilson” Machine, then “Big Willie,” and finally “Mother.”

This machine, to all intents and purposes, was, and remains, the Heavy Tank of to-day—the Mark V.

In August the whole of the Armoured Car Division was disbanded!

This disbandment was stopped by the personal intervention of Mr. d’Eyncourt. It was one of the many occasions on which he saved the landships (and future Tanks) from extinction. I also made a personal request to the Minister of Munitions, and was told by him that the Admiralty informed him that the order was to be disregarded.

Mr. MacNamara then suggested, for secrecy’s sake, to change the title of the Landships Committee. Mr. d’Eyncourt agreed that it was very desirable to retain secrecy by all means, and proposed to refer to the vessel as a

“Water Carrier.” In Government offices, committees and departments are always known by their initials. For this reason I, as secretary, considered the proposed title totally unsuitable. In our search for a synonymous term, we changed the words “Water Carrier” to “Tank,” and became the “Tank Supply,” or “T. S.” Committee. This is how these weapons came to be called “Tanks,” and the name has now been adopted by all countries in the world.

The first Tank, “Mother,” was finished on January 26th, 1916, and sent by train to Hatfield Station, where it was unloaded in the middle of the night and driven up to the special ground in Hatfield Park. A detachment of Squadron 20, under the command of Major Hetherington, had previously been sent to Hatfield.

Colonel Sir Maurice Hankey arranged for Mr. McKenna, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to travel down to the Hatfield trials in my car. I explained to him our ideas of mechanical warfare and its value in the saving of life and shells. After the trials, Mr. McKenna said that it was the best investment he had yet seen, and that if the military approved, all the necessary money would be available.

Mr. Balfour, amongst others, took a ride in the Tank, but was removed by his fellow-Ministers before the machine tried the widest of the trenches. This was a trench more than nine feet wide which Lord Kitchener wished to see it cross, but which it had never attempted before. As Mr. Balfour was being removed feet first through the sponson door, he was heard to remark that he was sure there must be some more artistic method of leaving a Tank!

Sir William Robertson was well satisfied with the machine.

Colonel Swinton, who was acting at this time as Assistant Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, was entrusted with the task of raising and training a corps to man the Tanks, and a camp was taken at Thetford, in Norfolk. It was kept a great secret, and the whole ground, several miles in extent, was surrounded by armed guards. Several displays were given there during the summer, and live six-pounder shells were used. The King, Mr. Lloyd George, and Sir William Robertson were among those who saw our displays; and in June Colonel Estienne, who later on was to command the French Tanks, visited the camp.

It was decided that in September, Tanks should go to France. The Tanks at Thetford were entrained at night and taken by rail to Avonmouth. There they were shipped to Havre, taken to a village near Abbeville, and from there sent up to a point fifteen miles behind the line. Moving Tanks was in those days a very difficult business. The sponsons, each weighing tons, had to be unbolted and put on separate trucks, and in that journey from Thetford to the Front this process was gone through five times. The first party of the men of the Heavy Machine Gun Corps crossed to France on August 13th. Other parties followed, and on September 15th, seven months after the first order was given by Mr. Lloyd George, the Tanks went into action.

Tanks in Action

September, 1916, to October, 1916

The Tanks were already in France and waiting to go into battle, but the secret had been well kept—how well was shown by a thing that happened on the very morning in September when I was leaving for the Somme, for the first Tank action.

A Civil servant, an assistant secretary, came to see me on this eventful morning just as I was starting. He told me as my department was of no real importance, since he had* no knowledge what it was, he had arranged that during the next Sunday all my papers and drawings were to be moved out into a small flat in a back street opposite the Hotel Metropole.

This was no time to argue; my train left in a few minutes; once more the famous Squadron 20 to the rescue. I told him that the department could not move, as it was concerned in matters of the greatest national importance, and would require before long a very large building of its own. This bad no effect on him, so I gave instructions to one of my officers in his presence to put an armed guard on my office while I was away, and to resist any attack. Should the assistant secretary make an attempt he was to be arrested, taken to Squadron 20’s headquarters at Wembley, tied to a stake for twenty-four hours, and the reason carefully explained to all and sundry, especially newspaper reporters.

Fortunately no attempt was made.

On Sunday, the 17th, Sir Douglas Haig appeared in front of General Butler’s office and congratulated Colonel Swinton and me. He said, “We have had the greatest victory since the Battle of the Marne. We have taken more prisoners and more territory, with comparatively few casualties. This is due to the Tanks. Wherever the Tanks advanced we took our objectives, and where they did not advance, we failed to take our objectives.” He added: “Colonel Swinton. you shall be head of the Tank Corps; Major Stern, you shall be Head of the Construction of Tanks, 'io back and make as many more Tanks as you can. We thank you.” Immediately after my return we were ordered to build a thousand Tanks.

The mere tactical record of what the Tanks did at Fiers and Guendencourt gives no idea of the moral effect of the first appearance of this new and strange weapon. It astonished and terrified the enemy. It astonished, delighted, and amused its friends. War correspondents vied with each other to do

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justice to its half-terrible, half-comic strangeness (and yet give away no secrets), and the humorists of the battalions sharpened their wits on it. They communicated their gaiety, through their letters, to the people at home. The jolliest, most fantastic of them all was a letter from a soldier to his sweetheart, which appeared in the newspapers at the time. It could not be left out of an article on Tanks:—

A Tommy on Tanks

“They can do up prisoners in bundles like straw-binders, and, in addition, have an adaption of a printing machine, which enables them to catch the Huns, fold, count, and deliver them in quires, every thirteenth man being thrown out a little further than the others. The Tanks can truss refractory prisoners like fowls prepared for cooking, while their equipment renders it possible for them to charge into a crowd of Huns and, by shooting out spokes like porcupine quills, carry off an opponent on each. Though ‘stuckup’ the prisoners are, needless to say, by no means proud of their position.

“They can chew up barbed wire and turn it into munitions. As they run they slash their tails and clear away trees, houses, howitzers, and anything else in the vicinity. They turn over on their backs and catch live shells in their caterpillar feet, and they can easily be adapted as submarines, in fact most of them crossed the Channel in this guise. They loop the loop, travel forwards, sideways, and backwards, not only with equal speed but at the same time. They spin round like a top, only far more quickly, dig themselves in, bury themselves, scoop out a tunnel, and come out again ten miles away in half an hour.”

On October 10th, I received an official instruction from the Army Council cancelling the order for a thousand Tanks.

All the manufacturers who had had any experience of the methods of the Tank Department up till then had workwith the greatest enthusiasm. This sudden cancellation came as a thunderbolt. I immediately went to see Mr. Lloyd George, the Secretary of State for War. He said that he had heard nothing of the instruction.

The order for the production of a thousand Tanks was reinstated next day.

In May, 1917, Sir Douglas Haig wrote a letter to Lord Derby, the Secretary of State for War, in which he said that the importance of Tanks was firmly established and that there should be a special department at the War Office to look after them.

A Committee was therefore set up, with General Capper as Chairman. On July 27th, Sir Eustace d’Eyncourt and I ceased to attend the meetings of the Committee. We found that the three military members, who a month before had never even seen a Tank, laid down all rulings even with regard to design and production. They were in the majority and we could do nothing.

Instead of orders being given for thousands of Tanks, as I hoped, Mr. Churchill told me that the requirements for the Army for 1918 were to be one thousand three hundred and fifty fighting Tanks. This I determined to fight with every means in my power, and I told Mr. Churchill so.

On October 15th, I was told by Sir Arthur Duckham that three Generals at the War Office had asked for my removal.

Next day, Sir E. d’Eyncourt and I asked for an interview with Mr. Churhill. He refused to see Sir E. d’Eyncourt and told me that, with regret, he had decided to appoint a new man in my place, and, therefore, there was no object in discussing the situation. He added that he was in power, and, therefore, it was his responsibility, and that he had taken the advice of the Council Member, Sir Arthur Duckham. I told him that I would not resign, as I

believed it to be against the public interest, but that he could dismiss me.

Next day I receive! the following letter from him :—

“Ministry of Munitions,

“Whitehall Place, S. W.

“October 16th, 1917.

“DEAR COLONEL Stern,—As I told you in our conversation on Friday, Í have decided, upon the advice of the Member of Council in whose group your department is, and after very careful consideration of all the circumstances, to make a change in the headship of the Mecían .cal Warfare Supply Denartment.

“I propose, therefore, to appoint Vice-Admiral Sir Gorden Moore to succed you and this appointment will he announced in the next two or three days.

“T shall he glad to hear from you without delay whether those other aspects of activity in connection with the development of Tanks in France and America, on which Sir Arthur Duckham has spoken to you, commend themselves to you.

“Meanwhile, I must ask you to continue to discharge your duties until such time as you are relieved.

“Yours very truly, “WINSTON S. CHURCHILL.”

I had an interview with Sir Arthur Duckham on the same day, and he told me that Mr. Churchill was unable to persuade the War Office to have a larger number of Tanks, but that as he was a believer in Mechanical Warfare, it was his opinion that America should be persuaded to arm herself with the necessary number of Tanks for next year’s fighting.

He told me that Mr. Churchill considered it my duty, as the War Office did not wish to develop Mechanical Warfare on a large scale, to undertake its development among the Allies, and chiefly the Americans. At this time I also saw the Prime Minister and said that I was willing to undertake any duties which the country might call upon me to perform.

On October 29th, I accepted the position of Commissioner for Mechanical Warfare (Overseas and Allies). On the same day I warned Mr. Churchill once more that the progress of design and the output of the Tanks would most surely suffer. In the meantime, Admiral Sir A. G. H. W. Moore had been appointed the Controller of the Mechanical Warfare Department.

Up to the date of his appointment, Admiral Moore had never even seen a ÜT* enisle I

On April 8th, 1918, Lord Milner, who up till this time had been Cabinet Minister at Versailles, and was now appointed Secretary of State for War, came to see me at the offices of the Mechanical W’arfare (Overseas and Allies) Department in Paris. I explained to him the development of Mechanical Warfare and told him that the Tanks had great power of destruction quite out of proportion to their own total cost of humanity, which was limited to eight men a Tank. I told him that a special department, like the Air Ministry, should be formed, and that this Ministry or Board should be managed by those who had directed the development from the beginning. In this way a highly technical development could be carried out by a practical man with the advice of the military authorities.

Finally, I begged him to see Sir Eustace d’Eyncourt and to discuss the question of some proper authority to control and develop Mechanical Warfare.

From this date a new era of progress started for Mechanical Warfare at the War Office, with Sir Henry Wilson as Chief of the Imperial General Staff and General Harrington as Deputy Chief.