Britain’s Forgotten Tank War

Mark V tank

Saturday February 8th 1919

For a force so buried in traditions of uniformity the men assembled on the parade ground at Erin, France seemed somewhat out of character for the British Army. Certainly their uniforms were well presented, their boots cleaned and their caps on straight but where they differed to most British units was the fact that their epaulettes all represented different tank battalions as if this formation was made up of spares. The three officers and twenty-six NCOs were anything but spares however. They were in fact volunteers who were about to embark on an expedition to the other side of the world to take part in the colossal Russian Civil War and who were now parading for the first time with the men that would go with them.

To modern eyes it’s difficult to fathom why after four years of brutal bloodshed on the western front of World War One these men found themselves volunteering to go to war again. For some it was a sense of adventure. Others were politically motivated by the fear of bolshevism. A small few, the ones who had seen the most action, decided that fighting an enemy was easier than adapting back to a peacetime existence.

Over the next week this new unit in the British Army worked on their Mark V and Whippet tanks to get them ready to be shipped back to Britain where they would be loaded on to a ship to take them to Russia. There were just six of each and their crews had to make sure that four months of peace hadn’t dulled their skills. On the 12th of February the tanks were loaded on to a train bound for Calais where on the 14th the tanks and their crews left France. Back in Britain there was little time to relax or spend time with loved ones as the orders came instructing them to sail for Russia within a week. The ship that was to carry them was the SS St Michael and she sailed from the Royal Albert Docks on Saturday 2nd March 1919 on a course to the Russian port of Novorossysk via the Mediterranean.

It was a rather arduous 20 day journey and when the Russian harbour city was in sight it must have been a welcome relief for the tank crews. Their first sight of the harbour produced a very favourable impression with glistening sunshine juxtaposed against white capped mountains in the distance although attempts by the British to adequately pronounce its name resulted in them calling it “Nova Rossick!” The beautiful scene before them hid the horror of the Russian Civil War that was taking place ahead of them. It has long been said that Russia (meaning the Soviet Union as a whole) has long been a nation of sorrow with histories of brutal winters, unfair aristocratic practices and even cannibalism rife in the countryside.

Admiral Kolchak - Leader of the "White" Russians

Admiral Kolchak – Leader of the “White” Russians

The Russian Civil War effectively began with the October Revolution of 1917 when the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, took power. Believing in the communist works of Karl Marx they attacked every facet of the old Tsarist ways. This in turn divided the country in to fundamentally different factions; the Bolshevik “Red” Russians and the anti-Bolshevik “White” Russians under the leadership of Russian Admiral Alexander Kolchak. Britain, among other countries such as France and the United States, committed volunteer troops and even warships to fight alongside the “White” Russians in an effort to curb the spread of communism which was feared by many in the west. In fact the Irish uprising of 1916 was viewed by some as the first steps towards a communist Ireland and that a revolution in mainland Britain was next. The biggest problem the “White” Russians faced however was the lack of a unifying ideology. Whereas the “Red” Russians were united in the idea of an equal, socialist future the “White” Russians were composed of pro-Tsarist elements mixed with those wanting a democratic and capitalist based future. There were even moderate socialist elements within their ranks who believed that socialism was the way forward but not to the extremities that the Bolsheviks were taking it. The only thing that did unite them was a loathing for the Bolsheviks. This was the war the British volunteers found themselves in.

Upon arriving in Novorossysk the tanks and their crews were greeted by their “White” Russian allies who looked very much worse for wear with their dirty uniforms. Communication was always a frustrating affair but nevertheless both sides persevered and the unloading of the tanks and equipment began. The task took seven days to complete thanks to there being only one crane sufficient for the task of unloading the heavy Mark V tanks. After a few days the Russians put together a ramp for the smaller Whippets which greatly speeded things up. Any hope of the whole affair being kept quiet was completely destroyed by the rather talkative “White” Russians and huge crowds appeared at the docks in an almost chaotic scene to watch the amazing new war machines being unloaded. Many of the Cossack soldiers even rushed to kiss the vehicles believing they would be their saviour.

These first tanks formed what was now called the South Russian Tank Detachment and they were followed by more vehicles arriving in the following weeks. The unit was under the command of Major E.M. Bruce and at its peak strength the South Russian Tank Detachment had 57 Mark Vs and 17 Whippets and these were based at Ekaterindor where the British began training the “White” Russians to operate them. The British had decided against committing their own forces in to the battle for fear of being dragged in to yet another great war. However the Russians proved very poor at learning how to operate the new weapons and soon British crews found themselves having to commit to battle. When they did the tank proved what a decisive weapon it could be. The Russian Civil War was fought using very old fashioned techniques that pre-dated World War One. Large numbers of cavalry on horseback armed with bolt-action rifles (and even swords!) were seen as the primary means of attack. It was in June 1919 that the British took their tanks to fight the “Red” Russians. “White” Russian operations had been adequate but not spectacular but now it was the expert’s turn.

White Russian forces with a Mark V tank

White Russian forces with a Mark V tank

Mid-June 1919. “White” Russian forces launched an assault on the strategic city of Tsarytsin located on the banks of the river Volga. After two major offensives by the “White” Russians the city remained in Bolshevik hands and so it was decided to commit tanks to the fight. Three Mark Vs and three Whippets were deployed to the battlefield one of which (a Mark V) had an all-British crew under the command of one Captain Walsh. Walsh led the formation of tanks towards Bolshevik defences that comprised a row of barb wire in front of a single hastily dug defensive trench. The tanks mowed down the barb wire and then simply passed over the trench; the terrified Bolsheviks trying to retaliate but lacking anything to penetrate the tank’s armour and so were forced to flee. Using tactics perfected during the fighting on the western front less than a year earlier the tanks then turned and trundled their way along the trench destroying anything that opposed them. This in effect opened up a vast hole in Bolshevik defences for the “White” Russian cavalry to take full advantage of.

Unfortunately the supply chain was not as fast as the tanks and the six of them quickly ran out of fuel. Nevertheless the “White” Russian forces consolidated their positions protecting the tanks and their crews. It would take a full two days for enough fuel to reach them to get all the tanks going again and by this time Bruce himself had arrived to take command. Under Bruce’s command the tanks charged for the centre of Tsaritsyn and along with the “White” Russian cavalry fought a running gun battle with the Bolsheviks until the city fell and with it over 40,000 Bolshevik troops were captured. With the city in “White” Russian hands Bruce and his men returned to their training role at Ekaterindor. One of the masterminds behind the concept of armoured warfare, Sir B.H. Liddel Hart, later described the incident as ‘one of the most remarkable feats in the history of the tank corps.’

Tsaritsyn would not stay under “White” Russian control for long. Its workers had largely fallen under the Bolshevik spell and rose up against the occupational army. They were led by an influential and committed communist by the name of Josef Stalin and after eight months of bitter fighting he proclaimed the city under Bolshevik control once more. The city would later bear his name in honour of this glorious achievement – Stalingrad.

Mark V tank 2The story of Tsaritsyn summed up the whole conflict for the “White” forces and their foreign allies. It was a series of runaway victories that in the end amounted to nothing and as 1919 came to close it was clear that the Bolsheviks had stolen the initiative on all fronts. A new tank detachment, the North-Western, was formed to quickly train more Russian crews for fighting on this front and despite some impressive feats they could do little to stop the immense tide of the Bolsheviks. The British troops withdrew from the short lived North-Western Tank Detachment which then remained an all “White” Russian force until the end of the war.

Meanwhile the South Russian Tank Detachment was looking increasingly vulnerable and so London ordered that all British troops should withdraw. A small detachment, the third British tank detachment committed to the Russian Civil War, arrived in August 1919 but their primary goal was to cover the British withdrawal. Once this was complete the British handed over the last of the tanks and bid their “White” allies goodbye in October 1919.

The tanks continued to perform well against the Bolsheviks but the lack of spares and fuel meant they quickly ground to a halt. Many crews destroyed their tanks rather than let them fall in to the hands of the Bolsheviks. Nevertheless a few did survive and were among the first tanks of the post-Civil War Red Army. In one final twist to this story, in 1941 the city of Stalingrad (formerly Tsaritsyn, the city that was captured almost single-handedly by Bruce in 1919) was under siege yet again this time by German tanks. To help bolster defences the Soviets used every weapon they could get their hands on including three rather old rhomboidal shaped tanks of an earlier era – Mark Vs left over by the British.

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14 responses to “Britain’s Forgotten Tank War

  1. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Army | Defence of the Realm

    • A lot of my WW1 tank stories including this one I got from a book called “A Pictorial History of the Royal Tank Regiment”. I have been meaning to do more book reviews. I got Swinton’s Tank Tips from it. I got the book for 75p in a charity shop. I get a lot of my books from there and they in turn inspire my articles. I find a topic i like then research it further before writing an article.

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  5. Pingback: Royal Tank Regiment: A Pictorial History (George Forty) | Defence of the Realm

      • I am curious about the British involvement in the Russian Civil War (if that is the correct terminology). That they actually had heavy equipment, i.e., tanks, intrigues me. I’ve found a copy of the book you referenced and have it on order, but it will be armor oriented. Was the RAF also involved? What were the force levels, casualties, etc.

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      • That would be an entire article there and rest assured I shall put it on the to-do list. In general the Royal Navy was perhaps the most active element of the British forces involved in the Civil War. They ran blockading actions including the mining of Bolshevik harbours as well as provide training and ships for the White Russians. There were volunteers who fought alongside the White Russian armies some of which were actually of Russian descent. As for the air force I have never really researched that angle and I think it would be fascinating to look at. I do know that air power on the whole played a very small part in the conflict.

        The western allies who supported the White Russians – Britain, France and the USA – had very little interest in the war having just come out of the First World War. As I said in the article their efforts were not made an easier by the fact that the White Russians had no clear view on what to do to achieve victory (and what would happen afterwards if they did) and this left them wide open to defeat. In the inter-war years Churchill was heavily criticized for straying away from responsibility regarding the whole affair even though he was one of the strongest supporters for greater intervention.

        I will have to do more on this as it has proven quite a popular subject. Thanks for taking the time to read it and get back to me

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  6. I don’t know if it’s Tony’s or George Forty’s mistake, but there’s a considerable mix-up over the use of British Mark Vs in 1941. Stalingrad wasn’t beseiged until 1942. The use of Mk Vs was in the 1941 defence of Tallinn. The Red Army used four Mk Vs that had been captured from Estonia – survivors of the failed Intervention. IIRC, two were towed into position, while two moved under their own power.
    Otherwise, excellent coverage of an important topic.

    Best regards, and you’re welcome to visit Lanships website.

    Liked by 1 person

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