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Centenary of Tanks: Stepbrothers On Wheels

In other languages: th zh-tw ja

Wheeled armoured vehicles presented an alternative to combat vehicles on tracks. However, they had to travel a long and winding way to battlefield. These vehicles had to cut through mud, numerous shell holes and other obstacles characteristic of trench warfare without the terrain crossing capability afforded by tracks.

From February 1915, the engineers from the Landships Committee started looking for a "wonder weapon" for the British Army: a self-propelled armoured vehicle. Long months of hard work did not result in any successful designs and it seemed that the British Admiralty had given up on this promising concept because no one could came up with a workable and worthy project.

However, another product of technical development had already been implemented several years ago and had even seen its baptism of fire by that time. These were wheeled armoured vehicles, close relatives of tanks that would come in the near future. These vehicles were first used in combat at the turn of XX century. As is often the case with new inventions, military officers who saw them treated them as a novelty rather than an invention that could change the flow of battle. For this reason, a significant period of time passed before the armies of European countries properly adopted armoured vehicles. The first armoured vehicles saw combat in the battles of World War I, on the Western and Eastern fronts.

Minerva Military Armoured Cars: the First Division of Armoured Vehicles on the Western Front

Belgium was the first country to be plunged into the nightmare that was World War I when war broke out in 1914. An officer in the General Staff, Lieutenant Charles Henkart, used his personal Minerva automobile to get to the front line. To ensure that he reach the battle area safe and sound, this witty Belgian had arranged for his car to be equipped with armour plates and an 8-mm Hotchkiss machinegun for protection.

Бронеавтомобиль «Минерва» с экипажемThus, the Minerva – named after an ancient goddess of wisdom – was fully equipped and ready to fight. This vehicle proved quite effective. Its high speed of up to 90 km/h (on asphalt roads) allowed for quick and successful attacks on German positions. Unfortunately, later the armoured car was caught in a German ambush and destroyed. Henkart did not survive. Sadly, although his innovation saw some success on the battlefield, the brass did not take much notice of it.

A Belgian military attaché in Paris, Major Auguste Colonne was more successful. He managed to establish a fully-equipped division of armoured vehicles by late 1914. This division featured armoured cars by Minerva and Peugeot, which came equipped with 37-mm guns and machineguns. These armoured cars were manned by a 4-man crew, consisting of the Commander, Gunner, Driver, and Assistant Driver. Some of these armoured cars weighed up to 4 tons!

This Belgian Armoured Brigade also had an independent repair service and bicycle units. Major Colonne considered his unit elite, and as such, ordered a separate uniform from a Parisian couturier. He also preferred to enlist servicemen from the aristocracy. There were, of course, some exceptions: one of his most charismatic soldiers, known as Constant le Marin, was supposedly the author of the famous battle cry, "We will cut their heads off!" This battle cry was later echoed in battlefields as far away as Russia. One other person of note was an 18-year old poet named Marcel Thiry, who entered the unit to “have some fun and make a contribution in historical battles.”

The unit underwent trials until the spring of 1915 in Boulogne, and was later redeployed to Flanders. However, all that lay before them were pock-marked fields peppered with shell holes and clouds of toxic mustard gas. The Belgian unit of armoured cars had very few opportunities to contribute to the fighting. Trench warfare rendered armoured cars practically useless.

Armoured Life Savers From Great Britain

The history of Great Britain’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) Armoured Car Division was similar. After World War I broke out, the British began using airplanes for reconnaissance. However, many of these aircraft were shot down, and as has been the case throughout history, pilots were considered to be extremely valuable. Rescuing downed pilots became a top priority, and this mission was entrusted to the crews of Lanchester armoured cars developed at the request of RNAS. Lanchester armoured cars were protected by 8mm-thick armour plates, and mounted either a 7.62mm Maxim or 7.7mm Lewis machinegun.

The commander of the Armoured Car Division was quite a remarkable person. He was Oliver Locker-Lampson, a Conservative representative in the House of Commons of the British Parliament. Like his Belgian counterpart, he also transformed his own Rolls-Royce into an armoured car. The wages of armoured car drivers was a contentious issue that caused arguments between the Secretary of State for War Horatio Kitchener and the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. A common army driver earned a wage of 6 shillings per day, while Locker-Lampson paid his drivers 10 shillings per day.

The RNAS Armoured Car Division was sent to the front in Flanders, and like their Belgian colleagues, did not get a chance to prove their worth during the war. According to historian Jaroslav Galubinov, “Despite fierce battles against the German troops in Flanders, the division did not prove its worth. Those manoeuvrable armoured cars were useless in positional warfare, where the battlefield was crossed with numerous and endless lines of trenches.

The Allies could not afford to maintain two battle-ready divisions that were not suitable for action on the Western front. A decision was made to send the armoured car divisions the Russian Empire, where the 1st automobile machinegun platoon was formed.

"Adsky" and "Grozny" Horse-borne Armoured Vehicles

The Russian Empire was a pioneer when it came to automobile machinegun units. In 1906, Knyazh M. A. Nakashidze came up with the idea of such a unit. Unfortunately, he was killed by a bomb and never managed to put his plans into action.

In August 1914, the Secretary of War V.A. Suchomlinov approved the creation of an "armoured automobile machinegun platoon". In October of the same year, this platoon was sent to the North-Western front under the command of Regiment Cornell A.N. Debrzhansky. At this time, the platoon featured armoured vehicles built on the chassis of Russo-Balt light cars. The vehicles had 5 crew members and were each equipped with 3 Maxim machineguns. Later on, additional vehicles were purchased and the 1st automobile machinegun platoon received the British Austin 1st Series armoured cars.

Российские броневики «Руссо-Балт», увешанные ветками для маскировкиWarfare in 1914 had also proven that armoured vehicles equipped with only machineguns had inadequate firepower. It became apparent these vehicles needed guns of larger calibres and development soon began on armoured cars that could mount both a large-calibre gun and machinegun. The basis for this vehicle was the American 5-tonne "Garford".

Armoured vehicles were more widely-used as compared to their colleagues on the Western front. They were also more effective. A witness was quoted as saying, "We noticed some creepy silhouettes that paid no attention to the hail of bullets that was buzzing everywhere. The grim sound of creaking and the first continuous rows of helmets moved forward, then another, and another... the dreadful, creepy grey silhouettes came closer and closer, and then stinging showers of cold lead pierced through the columns of German soldiers. Soon, the ‘Hurrah!’ cry of Russian soldiers rumbled through the centre of the town". That is how witnesses described the offensive of the Russo-Balt armoured cars on 10 November, 1914 in the town of Stryków. Two years later, tanks would elicit the same emotions when they experienced their trial by fire.

As a rule, each armoured car unit in the Imperial Russian Army had its own name. For example, in the late fall of 1915, the "Adsky" Austin 1st Series (armed with machineguns) and "Grozny" Garford (armed with large-calibre guns) armoured vehicles secured the infantry crossing.

Armoured vehicles with large-calibre guns were seen given priority in combat. Vehicles with machineguns saw limited use because they were much more likely to cause friendly fire incidents. Germany, on the other hand, had no answer to the Garford vehicles.

By this time, a total of 120 armoured vehicles had been successfully used on Russian fronts, where there were fewer occurrences of positional warfare than on the Western front. However, armoured cars with powerful engines were quite logistically demanding. They still required roads (or at least a track) in order to function. Winter and spring brought bade weather that resulted in poor road conditions. At times, roads could only be passed by mounting snow chains on wheels for traction.

Poor road conditions were only a small part of the problem. Very often, horses were needed to deliver the vehicles to the combat area. Towing the armoured vehicles gave them a longer service life, and the advancing vehicles would not reveal their presence with the sounds of their running engines. The vehicles also frequently got stuck in mud and were at times too heavy to cross more flimsy bridges. For these reasons, some commanders were hesitant to enter battles with those vehicles.

The armoured vehicles used by Locker-Lampson fought on the Caucasian and Romanian fronts, and also took part in the Imperial Russian Army’s final offensive in June 1917 in Greece. It was a disaster. One officer recalls the battle as such: "The attack was met by a fierce counterattack using gas, flame guns and other dirty tricks of vandals. Our ‘comrades’ held position but were not able to advance". In 1918, the units left their iron steeds on the fields of Kursk and Vladivostok and returned home.

World War I proved to be too difficult a testing ground for armoured vehicles. The first phases of World War I saw mobile warfare during which vehicles could take the lead, but the high summer of 1915 saw the war descend into trench warfare. Under such conditions, vehicles could not make full use of their advantages. At this critical moment, the British war correspondent Cornell Ernest Dunlop Swinton sent a letter to the Commander of British Forces in France, Field Marshal John French. In that letter, he said that it was "necessary to develop new combat vehicles, on the basis of gasoline tractors on tracks".

Little did the world know, this simple letter would turn the course of history.

Author: Yuri Bahurin


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