In the 21st century the idea of what a tank should look like and how it should be used has become embedded in the shape of the modern military. It is therefore easy to forget that back in the 1920s and 1930s there was still a lot of speculation and experimentation involved in this newest form of warfare and it would take the greatest tank war of all time, World War II, to properly forge the tank in to the formidable weapon it became.
In Britain and the Soviet Union especially, the 1920s saw tank designers dabbling with the idea of multi-turreted tanks. Put simply the concept of the multi-turreted tank was to combine the breakthrough tanks (known as “Cruisers” in Britain) with their big guns and speed with the defensive machine guns of an infantry support tank. The benefits of mutl-turreted tanks were seen that they could be “master-of-all-trades” and effectively be the final word on the battlefield.
The first tanks that appeared during the Great War didn’t feature turrets. Their armament were carried in sponsons between the tracks that carried around the circumference of the vehicle. They bore a striking similarity to naval sponsons mounted on warships and this was no accident because it was the Royal Navy (in particular First Sea Lord Winston Churchill) who first contemplated building tracked armoured vehicles. In fact the first tanks were called landships and some even carried warship names such as HMS Centipede. The problem with sponson-mounted weapons however was that their mechanisms for training on to an enemy offered a structural weakpoint, could not be trained on to targets directly ahead or behind and also if one sponson was knocked out or malfunctioned then the tank was vulnerable from that side. Turrets on the other hand had the ability to attack every angle around the tank and could be designed to cover their own mechanism thus increasing protection. They could also be fired from behind an embankment without exposing the entire vehicle and so turrets became the standard form of armament in tanks in the post war years and has remained so to the present day.
In 1924 a mechanical engineer named Walter Gordon Wilson, a former Royal Naval Air Service officer and one of the engineers who worked on the original tank (landship) program, responded to an Army requirement for a new heavy tank with a design that mounted four .303 machine gun turrets atop of the hull covering all four quarters while sandwiched in between them was a larger turret housing a 3pdr (47mm) main gun for breaking through enemy defensive lines and engaging other tanks. The aft-left gun turret was able to elevate higher than the others to give a certain level of defence against aircraft. The tank was intended to operate in large groups independently of supporting tanks and overwhelm the enemy with superior firepower. For that reason the tank, built by Vickers, became the A1E1 “Independent”.
What happened next shocked the British military. The tank was not put in to production but rather served as a military test vehicle for future multi-turreted designs. While the potential was there the shortcomings in terms of power and weight were apparent as well and it was felt that time was needed to perfect the concept. At the same time as the trial program was under way the Soviet Union began to take an interest in the design but from afar. The Soviets responded by developing the T-28 tank which was remarkably similar. Too similar some would say. It remains unclear exactly how but it was uncovered later that plans for the A1E1 found their way to Moscow most likely as the result of a Soviet intelligence operation concerning the Vickers company.
Another country was also taking an interest in the A1E1 and it’s unique features; Nazi Germany. By the time Adolf Hitler had came to power the A1E1 was slowly running out of steam after years of trials but Nazi engineers were impressed enough by it and the Soviet T-26 to design their own and to do that they needed the results from the British tests. Nazi officials managed to contact a BritIsh Army officer named Norman Baillie-Stewart who they knew to be a Nazi sympathizer. They convinced him to send copies of the A1E1’s specifications among other secrets and these were used to help design the Neubaufahrzeug series of tank prototypes. Baillie-Stewart was discovered and court martialled. In true British fashion he was held in the Tower of London serving a five year sentence.
The A1E1 debacle meant that any lead Britain could have had in the development of multi-turreted tanks was lost. Regardless of this, development continued with the Vickers Medium Mk.III derived from the “A6” arriving in 1930. Again this did not enter production but continued to serve as a trials vehicle proving not only the technology but the operating principles taking part in British Army exercises. Trials proved that five turrets like in the A1E1 was just impractical and so the Medium Mk.III resorted to three turrets; the main gun centrally mounted and two machine gun turrets flanking either side of it on the forward glacis. To help address the reduction in guns a third machine gun was mounted co-axially to the main gun in the turret. It was in this configuration that the fruits of the multi-turreted testing could be seen in the Cruiser Mk.I tank which entered service in 1937 just as war clouds were looming.
In the early months of the war the Cruiser Mk.I did well enough considering the superior tactics used by the Germans that was ultimately the downfall of the British and French armies. The Cruiser had sufficient firepower to penetrate the armour of some of the German tanks such as the early Panzer III but the fatal flaw of all multi-turreted tanks quickly became obvious. The smaller turrets at the front could not be sufficiently armoured as German tank weapons grew in calibre leaving them wide open to being destroyed in the front. The same was found by the Germans and the Soviet Union both of whom quickly turned to heavy frontal armour over defensive firepower although most tanks retained a hull mounted machine gun but even this was dropped eventually.
The last multi-turreted design in British service was the Crusader which featured a 2pdr main gun and a single machine gun turret on the forward glacis. While reasonably successful against the Italians in the desert the tank needed a heavier punch when Germany’s Afrika Korps appeared and the fitting of a 6pdr gun forced the removal of the machine gun turret. Multi-turreted tanks survived longer in the Soviet Union but their success was limited. There the main problems were again lack of armour but also a lack of mobility due to the sheer size and weight of the vehicles produced such as the T-100.
After the outbreak of the war development of multi-turreted tanks stopped (the US M3 Grant/Lee was not a multi-turreted tank as it’s 75mm gun was mounted in a sponson) but not before a true behemoth of a tank was produced in France. Entering service in 1921 the Char 2C’s physical dimensions put it as the largest tank ever built. It featured two turrets; a forward main turret armed with a 75mm gun and a rear turret armed with an 8mm machine gun for rear defence. Additionally the tank bristled with three more 8mm machine guns fired through gimbals. Weighing a road-shattering 69 tonnes the Char 2C survived long enough to serve with the French Army at the outbreak of World War II where they had a rather undeserved reputation in the French press as being invincible super tanks. In reality they were knocked out comparatively easily due mostly to their total lack of mobility. A single example was captured and presented to the Nazi party as a war trophy.
The story of the Char 2C highlights an important point about multi-turreted tanks; they looked more impressive than they actually were. While the concept is remembered largely as a failure it is important to remember that the spirit behind their conception (tailoring a single tank to be able to carry out many functions) remains today. Modern tanks have main guns that are capable of firing a wide variety of weapons such as anti-tank shells, anti-personnel shells, high explosive shells, and even anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles. This means the modern tank with its single turret and main gun is a far more versatile machine than tanks of the 1940s and 1950s.