The first V.C. of the Tank Corps

Born out of the blood and mud of the trench warfare that had cut Europe in half, the tanks and their crews became a key part of every major offensive after their surprise debut on September 15th 1916. As such, many tank crews found themselves thrown in to the thickest of the fighting and suffered for it. The Tank Corps would end the war with four Victoria Crosses awarded to men who had served within its ranks. All four VCs were awarded posthumously.

British Army WW1 World War One Mark I tank

The first man to receive the award was Captain Clement Robertson. Born in to a military family, Robertson’s father was serving in the Royal Artillery and stationed in South Africa when he was born on December 15th 1890. Having studied engineering in Dublin, he went to work in Egypt before joining the Army upon the outbreak of war in 1914. In February 1917, he joined the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps which was the precursor to the Tank Corps.

In the beginning of October 1917, acting-Captain Robertson was tasked with helping capture the high ground over the Reutel Valley in western Belgium. September had seen extremely heavy fighting in the region under the blanket of the Third Battle of Ypres. The British had achieved success against the Germans on the Menin Ridge Road between September 20th-26th 1917 and again in Polygon Wood immediately after prompting the German 4th Army to launch a counter attack. Between September 30th and October 4th, the Germans made several calculated counterattacks often many hours after the British had attacked to gather as much intelligence on the enemy and organise effective artillery support.

It was during this campaign that Robertson would become the first soldier in the still-infant Tank Corps to receive the Victoria Cross but at the cost of his life.

His citation reads:

Captain Clement Robertson Victoria Cross VC Tank CorpsFrom 30 September to 4 October this officer worked without a break under heavy fire preparing a route for his tanks to go into action against Reutel. He finished late on the night of October 3rd, and at once led his tanks up to the starting point for the attack. He brought them safely up by 3 A.M. on 4 October, and at 6 A.M. led them into action.

The ground was very bad and heavily broken by shell fire and the road demolished for 500 yards. Captain Robertson, knowing the risk of the tanks missing the way, continued to lead them on foot. In addition to the heavy shell fire, intense machine-gun and rifle fire was directed at the tanks. Although knowing that his action would almost inevitably cost him his life, Captain Robertson deliberately continued to lead the tanks when well ahead of our own infantry, guiding them carefully and patiently towards their objective.

Just as they reached the road he was killed by a bullet through the head; but his objective had been reached, and the tanks in consequence were enabled to fight a very successful action. By his very gallant devotion Captain Robertson deliberately sacrificed his life to make certain the success of his tanks.

At the time of his death he was 26 years old and had not married. Consequently, his Victoria Cross was instead presented to his mother, Frances Robertson, in a ceremony held at the Royal Barracks, Dublin, on March 27th 1918. The exact location of his remains are unclear but he is believed to have been buried at the Oxford Road Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery located less than two miles from Ypres.


5th Armoured Car Company in China, 1927-29

Rolls Royce armoured car shanghai 1927

Since 1644, the people of China were ruled by the Qing Dynasty culminating in the ascendance to the throne of the two-year old Emperor Puyi in 1908. After two years on the throne, China was rocked by series of revolts and uprisings known collectively as the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 which saw the young Emperor’s abdication. In the years that followed, China’s political landscape was dominated by in-fighting and even warlordism coupled with an unsuccessful attempt to restore Puyi to the throne in 1917.

In 1919, the anti-monarchist and strongly nationalist party the Kuomintang was formed with the aim of unifying the country and defeating the warlords. The Kuomintang sought support from the western nations such as Britain, France and the United States all of whom had invested money, people and resources in China for their own economic gain. Their requests were largely ignored by the western nations and so they turned to the newly created Soviet Union for help.

The Soviets agreed but they also agreed to supply their ideological comrades in the Communist Party of China (CPC). The Soviet plan was to have both parties defeat the warlords and have them form two power blocks which could then be manipulated for their own gains due to their reliance on Soviet support. In 1924, with Soviet assistance the Kuomintang formed a military academy to train members of its own political army and despite a power sharing agreement signed in 1923, the CPC became displaced and its members had to join the Kuomintang if they wished to keep their political positions.

This influx of former CPC members saw the party divided along left- and right-wing ideologies which came to a head when its leader Sun Yan-sen died in 1925. After Sun’s death the CPC began to rise in prominence again thanks to the left-wing support it gained from within the Kuomintang. In early 1927, both sides of the divide decided to move their headquarters with the CPC and their left-wing supporters transferring from Guangzhou to Wuhan while the remainder of the Kuomintang moved to Jiangxi. The lines were drawn and after a Communist uprising in Nanchang in August of that year the fighting quickly spilled out across the country.

The British Empire was still a major force in Asia at this time and its own economic interests reached within China’s borders. Throughout the 19th century, Britain and several other European nations sought to dominate the export of Chinese products such as Chinese tea, silk, porcelain and even opium all of which was highly sought after in European markets. British efforts to trade with the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century saw the two powers clash in the infamous Opium Wars which resulted in China submitting to many British demands.

The conflicts also saw Hong Kong leased to Britain and British ships and exporters were given trading rights in major cities like Shanghai, Hankou and Canton. British influences in these cities was clear with foreign districts (known as concessions) springing up that were modelled along UK lines. Here, wealthy British businessmen and their families could live in a facade of Great Britain with homes that would not look out of place in the wealthy parts of London or Liverpool.

The British government viewed the internal politics of China in the 1920s primarily on the basis of how it would affect British interests in the region and unless these interests were threatened, Britain had little interest in getting involved. Such a threat emerged in January 1927 when the British concession in Hankou, a 116 acre stretch of land, was occupied by Kuomintang forces marching north. This sparked a political crisis that went beyond the loss of a piece of land. British interests were directly threatened which had the potential to effect the market for Chinese goods in Europe but it was also a snub against British authority; one that could very easily spread.

After the Kuomintang invaded Hankou, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s China Station, Vice-Admiral Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt, sought to establish a British military presence in Shanghai to protect British lives and property. This was agreed to and the Shanghai Defence Force was formed comprising of elements of all three British military services under the overall command of Major General John Duncan who formed a headquarters at King’s College in Hong Kong. The Royal Navy primarily concerned itself with protecting shipping in and out of Shanghai while the Royal Air Force provided logistical support and eventually conducted reconnaissance duties on behalf of the British Army stationed in Shanghai.

10384653_701105933343214_3824665908296579757_nOne unit of the Army dispatched to China was the 5th Armoured Car Company (ACC) that was equipped with the now legendary Rolls-Royce Armoured Car (Right). The 5th ACC had been formed in Ireland in 1920 from elements of the 17th Tank Battalion as the revolutionary violence began to reach its peak. The 5th ACC was then transferred to Scarborough following the partition of Ireland before moving on to Warrington in Cheshire. In January 1927, as the Shanghai Defence Force was being formed it was decided to send the 5th ACC to support them and the men along with their Rolls-Royces quickly sailed to the Far East arriving in March.

The 5th ACC had three primary roles in China;

  1. Keeping the peace within the British concessions by preventing Kuomintang or CPC forces fighting there.
  2. Patrolling land trade routes to protect them from attack by combatants or bandits.
  3. To man road blocks guarding British-controlled areas.

The British Army’s Armoured Car Companies had extensive experience at that time of such operations. As well as in Ireland they had operated extensively in India during the 1920s helping to police trouble spots in the North West Frontier. Any thoughts of them having to “retake” the British concession in Hankou if only to restore British pride were nullified by an agreement for joint British-Kuomintang administration in February before the 5th ACC arrived which some outside observers viewed as British imperial weakness.

Despite the tense atmosphere, the men of the 5th ACC were left relatively unmolested as the two Chinese powers fought for control of the country. They would sometimes encounter the odd rifle round being sent their way as they patrolled the roadways although whether it was from the Kuomintang, the CPC or just trigger happy bandits few could be certain. Operations in China saw the need to introduce modifications to the vehicles most notably the fitting of a protruding, front bumper bar to protect the wheels from being punctured in a collision with Shanghai’s often dense road traffic of bicycles, carts, lorries and of course people. Another modification saw the fitting of armoured covers for the tops of the turrets which raised the vehicles’ profile leading to them being referred to as “top hats” by their crews.

While the Chinese were more concerned with fighting each other than the British, the droves of poorly trained but heavily armed Chinese fighters particularly with the CPC who relied on a peasant army across the country meant that it was all but inevitable the 5th ACC would see action. It came during a patrol on Darroch Road (now renamed Doulon Road) in Shanghai led by Lieutenant T. P . Newman NC, DCM. A letter home from one of the men in the patrol which was reprinted in A Pictorial History – Royal Tank Regiment by George Forty describes the encounter;

We have all been seeing plenty of life in the way of work, patrols day and night, and have had one or two small shows. Newman’s was of course the biggest; he has his right arm smashed up.

He was caught in a narrow road at 15 yards range and got three bullets through the driver’s observation slit, one of which wounded him and what with the splash and the remaining two, the whole crew were hit and the car ditched. Newman got out to get the [Rolls-Royce] out and was hit by another bullet in the same arm, one inch above the first wound. This one broke the bone and put him right out of action.

His car was pulled out by the other car of the sub-section and taken back to camp. Wilcox carried on the show for the next six hours and then I went up with my sub-section and remained on the spot for four days. Things are very quiet now.

After the show we counted 91 bullet marks on Newman’s car.

Fortunately for the men of the 5th ACC, such incidents were the exception. As the year went on the Kuomintang began to wrestle control of the city away from the CPC reducing the risk to British interests and after August, British forces began to be withdrawn. The 5th ACC would be one of the longer lasting units however and would remain in China through 1928 before finally withdrawing to Egypt in January 1929. There they handed over their vehicles to the 12th Royal Lancers who were converting from horses to armoured vehicles.

One of the vehicles used by the 5th Armoured Car Company in China survives to this day at the Bovington Tank Museum.


2009 Massereene Barracks Shooting

Saturday 7th March 2009

Massereene Barracks was situated in Antrim and in 2009 was home to 38 Engineering Regiment. Despite it being north western Europe, the combat fatigues worn by most of the soldiers at the barracks that day were of the desert type suited to Afghanistan for the regiment were on the eve of a deployment to Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick. At approximately 2140hrs, a group of soldiers emerged from the barracks to meet up with two delivery drivers from the local Domino’s Pizza. Among them were Sappers Mark Fitzpatrick, Patrick Azimkar, Richard Marshall, Christopher Fairclough and Mark Quinsey.

The soldiers spoke mainly to one of the drivers, local man Anthony Watson, since his colleague was a Polish-born man who spoke very little English. As they worked out their bill they were unaware that they were being observed by the two occupants of a green Vauxhall Cavalier that had stopped across the road from the main gate to the barracks.

According to Sapper Mark Fitzpatrick’s account,  he heard some commotion followed by someone shouting for them to take cover. There was suddenly a burst of automatic gunfire that hit Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey. Azimkar fell against Fitzpatrick before dropping to the ground; conscious but in pain. Quinsey was silent however. Fitzpatrick quickly took cover in the footwell of the pizza driver’s car while Richard Marshall took cover behind the vehicle before making a run for the main gate with Fairclough to alert the barracks of the attack.

Whilst taking cover in the car, Fitzpatrick looked up at one of the gunmen. He later described what happened next;

Whoever it was wanted to cause damage and they finished [Amzikar] off before firing in at me…There was no remorse. He knew what he was doing, he just seemed to do it all quick. When he saw me in the car he opened fire. [The gun] was an automatic, probably about 10 to 15 seconds of constant fire.


Azimkar & Quinsey

Fitzpatrick was wounded in the chest where one of the 7.62mm bullets from a Romanian AKM assault rifle punctured his lung. He was also hit in his hand and shoulder. Both delivery drivers were wounded in the attack but their injuries were not life-threatening. Sappers Pat Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were both killed however with the former being shot again at close range despite already being wounded in the initial attack. They were the first British Army casualties as a result of dissident action in Northern Ireland since 1997.

The attackers fired off around 60 rounds of ammunition equivalent to two full magazines before retreating back in to their vehicle and fleeing the scene. The green Vauxhall Cavalier was found a few hours later abandoned eight miles away near Randalstown; there had been an effort to burn the vehicle but DNA evidence was obtained from it. As the news broke, the offices of The Sunday Tribune newspaper in Dublin received a call from the Real IRA – a splinter group from the previous Provisional IRA – claiming responsibility for the attack promising that as long as there was a “British military occupation of Northern Ireland” then there would be more bloodshed in the future. The caller even cited the pizza delivery men as legitimate targets since they were servicing British forces. The next day, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer Stephen Carroll was shot dead in Craigavon, County Armagh in another dissident attack this time carried out by another splinter group of the Provisional IRA known as the Continuity IRA.


Flowers left at the gate where the shooting took place (Belfast Telegraph)

An investigation was launched into the attack while the people of the United Kingdom, who had become so focused on the threat from Islamic extremism and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, were quickly reminded that despite the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland was still divided and armed. However, many leading figures of the former Provisional IRA such as Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams publicly condemned the shootings claiming the perpetrators had no real support or plan for a united Ireland. There was also widespread condemnation from abroad such as the US and the government in Dublin as well by Pope Benedict XVI. There was also a mass vigil attended by Catholics and Protestants at the barracks to remember the fallen soldiers. The splinter groups of the IRA remained unapologetic however with the Continuity IRA stating that the Irish people had a right to use whatever force was necessary to remove the British from Ireland and that the attack was not murder but more akin to an act of war.

A week after the attack, three men were arrested but one was subsequently released. The two remaining men, Colin Duffy from Lurgan and  Brian Shivers from Magherafelt, were put on trial for the shooting. Duffy, a long-time Republican, was found not-guilty in 2012 and released but Shivers was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding this conviction since it was based primarily on DNA evidence found in a glove that was in the abandoned Vauxhall Cavalier but ignored the fact that Shivers was not a well man suffering from Cystic Fibrosis. There was also the fact that his wife – herself a Protestant – gave him an alibi for the night of the attack which was dismissed in the trail. After the launching of a campaign by his family and friends a retrial was granted in 2013. Shivers was cleared of the attack. His lawyer said to reporters that he was not celebrating but rather his thoughts were with the families of Pat Azimkar and Mark Quinsey who still demand answers to why their sons will never come home.

A memorial to Pat Azimkar and Mark Quinsey was erected at Massereene Barracks but was moved to Aldergrove when 38 Engineering Regiment was relocated there and the barracks were sold to Randox Laboratories Ltd. in 2013. In the days after the shooting, shocked news reporters described Army duty in 21st century Northern Ireland as being no more dangerous than on the mainland. This demonstrated how complacent many people had become regarding the situation in Northern Ireland and while there seems to be a committed effort on all sides for peace there still remain those willing to take up arms to achieve their aims.




In To The Hands Of The Enemy

In 1915, the entente powers opened up a new front against Germany and her allies of Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria intended to relieve the pressure on Serbia. The Allies used Greece as their base to strike north through the Balkans but it would prove too little, too late for Serbia which fell in December 1915. The new front was now aimed at liberating Serbia and also to relieve some of the pressure on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The British contingent, known as the British Salonika Army being named after the second largest city in Greek Macedonia, comprised of two full Army Corps (XII and XVI) as well as a contingent of staff officers and support from the Royal Flying Corps’ 16th Wing.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3.jpg

Armstrong-Whitworth F.K.3 (

Within the ranks of the RFC in Greek Macedonia was No.47 Squadron equipped with, among others, the Armstrong-Whitworth FK.3 general-purpose biplane. The FK.3 was designed in response to the perceived obsolescence of the Royal Aircraft Factory’s BE.2 biplane which operated in the artillery spotting role. Early FK.3s offered little improvement however and plans for it to replace the already established BE.2 were shelved with it instead becoming little more than a training tool based in Britain. Perhaps by some oversight, No.47 Squadron took its FK.3s to Greek Macedonia in 1916 to support the British Salonika Army and in doing so become the only squadron to field the aircraft abroad.

Among the new pilots to join the squadron’s ranks at this time was 20-year old 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Cecil Stopher. Born in Woolwich, London he joined the Army in 1915 gaining a commission in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers before requesting a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Completing his training in November 1916 he arrived in Salonika shortly after and was assigned to fly the squadron’s FK.3s on spotter and reconnaissance duties.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219

Stopher’s aircraft (

A little over three months after joining No.47 Squadron, on February 12th 1917 the now 21-year old 2nd Lieutenant Stopher took off in FK.3 Nr.6219 from a neighbouring French aerodrome to rejoin his squadron at their forward base. There was heavy air activity that day with No.47 Squadron reporting sporadic encounters with German aircraft and so when Stopher was reported overdue it was assumed he had been shot down enroute. However, a few days later the British intercepted a German wireless communication stating that Stopher had in fact gotten lost and mistook the Bulgarian airfield at Demi Hissar in southern Macedonia for his own. Having landed safely he was taken prisoner and his intact aircraft was seized.

Stopher would join over 5,000 British, Serbian and French PoWs at the Bulgarian prison camp at Philippopolis (despite the Greek name the city is actually located in Bulgaria and is known today as Plovdiv). The camp was built on the grounds of a former cholera hospital and prisoners were forced in to labour details helping build canals, bridges and roads in the Bulgarian countryside. Stopher would not be repatriated to Britain until January 1919.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219 Bulgarian markings

6219 in Bulgarian markings (

As for his aircraft, Nr.6219 was pressed in to Bulgarian service serving with the 1st Aeroplanno Otdelenie Division. Perhaps reflecting on their own machines, Bulgarian pilots were impressed with the aircraft even if the RFC pilots were less so. Having become accustomed to the aircraft the Bulgarians repainted the aircraft with black crosses but retained the 6219 serial number and turned the aircraft on its former owners. In the period between Autumn 1917 and Spring 1918 the aircraft flew a number of offensive operations against the Allies. Official records show 42 missions credited to the aircraft in total that ranged from reconnaissance to strafing and night-bombing.

Then on the night of May 23rd-24th 1918, the aircraft took off with Lieutenant Usunoff at the controls and with Lieutenant P. Atasanoff as observer for a night attack mission. Using small 12.5kg (27lb) bombs and their machine gun they harassed British forces between Gümüsdere and Lake Takhino. During an attack on a British position at Gorasanli the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire forcing the Bulgarians to turn for home however a short while later one of the engine’s cylinders began misfiring before stopping completely. Usunoff managed to glide the aircraft down near Struma, landing it in a boggy field where it began to sink. The two Bulgarians left the aircraft semi-submerged in the bog and began walking back to their lines. The FK.3 was beyond salvageable and never flew again.

The First Drones

First Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

In the 21st century, military aviation is increasingly making use of unmanned aircraft. They are known by a number of names with the American term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) being the most common while in Britain they are often referred to as Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) but to the public at large they are known simply as drones. It is hard to escape these fascinating aircraft as reports of their exploits in the global war on terror regularly make it on to the evening news. Traditionally, these drones have been used primarily in the reconnaissance role but it might surprise many to know that unmanned military aviation for intelligence gathering purposes is not a new concept and actually dates back to the 19th century.

The story of these early drones begins with the invention of the first practical photograph taken by a camera in 1816 by Nicéphore Niépce which revolutionised mankind’s ability to record history. While the early photographs were of poor quality they were enough to encourage others to work on perfecting the practice and improving the quality much to the disdain of the artisan community who felt that photographs threatened the livelihoods of painters. The poor quality of early photographs meant that the British military at large were relatively slow in showing an interest in the new recording technique but a few of its ranks did have more forethought.

One of McCosh's wartime photographs (

One of McCosh’s wartime photographs (

John McCosh was a Scottish born Army Surgeon serving with the Bengal Army when in 1848 the Second Anglo-Sikh War broke out. During the course of the conflict McCosh took several photographs using a quarter plate camera that produced small prints of 10cm x 8cm. Many of his photographs were mere portraits of officers or the local land but were the first photographs taken in the course of an armed conflict. While historically significant these photographs were of little official use other than for the upper class officers to boast of their accomplishments.

All that began to change however when the Crimean War broke out less than six years later. In 1854 an amateur photographer named Gilbert Elliot was commissioned by the British government to photograph Russian fortifications along the Wingo Sound in the Baltic Sea. In March of that year he set up his camera aboard the British warship Hecla and took numerous photographs of the Russian defences which were praised for their clarity given that they were taken aboard a moving warship. Sadly, none of these photographs have survived to the present day.

Thanks to these early pioneers the British military began to take the idea of photography for reconnaissance purposes more seriously. At the same time British Army officers observed developments in the United States regarding aerial photography from an observation balloon. In 1860 the American James W. Black took what is considered to be the first aerial photograph in history when he photographed Boston Common while suspended from an air balloon at an altitude of 1200ft. It was an impressive feat considering the laborious process of taking a picture back then that required the image to remain in the viewfinder for sometimes as many as a few minutes. Worse still, Black had to operate the camera and relay instructions back down to his ground team under cover and in complete darkness as any light on the plate that held the image would fade it. He also had to return to Earth and process the image within 20 minutes or it would fade naturally and the image would be lost.

James W Black Boston Aerial Photograph

One of Black’s photographs. The military applications are obvious (commons.wikimedia)

Throughout the 1860s pioneers like Black persisted and while still a largely impractical affair the world at large was getting it’s first real bird’s eye views of the world. As the 1870s dawned some began to look at the whole process and began to contemplate the idea of sending up a balloon fitted with a camera that could be controlled from the ground. This had numerous advantages such as needing smaller balloons and of course being much safer and easier than having someone suspended underneath them. The proponents of such balloons argued that they could be very useful for spying on the enemy and gathering intelligence on enemy positions, a fact which had largely been proven in the Crimea by Elliot.

Unfortunately controlling the mechanism for the camera proved extremely problematic. A number of efforts were made to remotely control the camera action but almost all failed. Some attempted to use a series of pulleys attached to the camera handle while others used mechanical devices to remotely control the action all of which failed. Then in 1877 the British photographer and inventor, Walter B. Woodbury, concocted a potentially revolutionary system involving electrical currents to instruct the camera when to take the photograph.

Having patented his idea he then presented his invention to the British Army. Woodbury’s idea was to have the operators move the balloon and its tether close to the enemy’s position and then begin the process of inflation. The camera would be set up underneath on a gimbal-like device invented by a Frenchman named Nadar to stabilise it and then when it was ready for deployment the brake on the tether would be released and the balloon would go upwards to a satisfactory height where the enemy was visible. The operator could then send a series of electrical pulses up to the balloon via an electric cable to trigger the photographic process. This is essentially the same operating concept as modern battlefield UAVs.

Unfortunately for Woodbury the system proved unreliable. Often there was not enough electrical current to reach the balloon at the end of the wire or the signal became interrupted resulting in half developed photographs if any were made at all. Had he corrected this problem then the British Army may have taken more of an interest but in the end they were unconvinced and despite the promise of the system Woodbury abandoned development of his invention.

New camera technology was arriving all the time and soon operating one or even two cameras by a single man in a balloon became more practical and he could take several photographs before being winched back down. Another advantage of manned balloons was that the operator could focus the camera on to a target whereas with unmanned balloons there was no way to guarantee that the camera was looking at the area of interest. This spelled the end of unmanned balloons for photographic reconnaissance although there would be later experiments in Russia and France but none came to fruition. Nevertheless these experiments produced unmanned aircraft that are truly the spiritual ancestors of today’s drones.

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (

The British Army and the S-Tank

Thanks to Tim Morley for recommending this article and providing many of the sources for me.


Strv 103b 2

There have been few truly revolutionary tanks since their emergence in the trenches of the First World War. The evolution of the main battle tank was a slow affair with each new generation adding only a few more improvements over the previous but there have been some that have made the next step quite a radical one. Then there are the real oddities that appear every so often and one such tank is the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 (often abbreviated to Strv 103 or sometimes referred to as the S-Tank). At first glance there is little resemblance to what is considered to be a “tank” primarily because it lacks a turret.

Archer tank destroyer with fixed turret (commons.wikimedia)

Archer tank destroyer with fixed turret.

Turretless armoured fighting vehicles were not a new concept in the 1950s when work on the Strv 103 first began. The first ever operational tank, the British Mark I, carried its weapons in sponsons on the side of the vehicle. Later, as tanks progressed and became more and more integral to victory on the battlefield a series of tank destroyers were developed to counter them directly. These were primarily small tracked vehicles with a fixed or partially trainable main gun built in to the hull. So when the Swedish Army unveiled the Strv 103 to the world in the late 1950s describing it as a main battle tank many observers were puzzled. The Swedes argued that their new vehicle could be used like a main battle tank to hold a defensive line against invading Soviet tanks but offer a substantial increase in protection, be harder to detect and have excellent agility the latter of which was achieved by being the first tank fitted with a gas turbine engine.

The uniqueness of this vehicle extended beyond the exterior. The vehicle had a crew of just three when most turret tanks of the period had a crew of five. Two of the crew sat up front in the forward hull while a third sat at the rear of the vehicle and had an extra driving console for fleeing rearward. Armament for the tank was a bit more conventional however in that it was equipped with the outstanding British L7 105mm gun which at that time had become NATO’s standard tank gun equipping a large proportion of British, American and German tank designs. The barrel was lengthened compared to the standard gun on the Centurion and featured an autoloader which had a firing rate of 15rds/min. Elevating the gun was again a unique operation. The gun was fixed in to the hull so the tank used pneumatic suspension to raise or lower the front of the vehicle and subsequently the gun.

By 1964 the Swedish Army was introducing this seemingly revolutionary new kind of tank warfare and they began courting foreign interest. In the UK the new tank was met with both curiosity and suspicion. The British Army recognised the tank’s attributes quite quickly especially in the defensive role the Swedes had envisioned it would operate but questions were raised about how it would fare beyond that one role. Main battle tanks need to smash through enemy lines and take and hold territory. Also, holding a line involves relocating to new positions since once a tank fires it reveals its position. The British Army questioned the Strv 103’s ability to do this effectively because they suspected the gun could not fire on the move such as when fleeing from an ambush. In fairness this was a somewhat dubious criticism because in the early 1960s gun stabilisation on British and American tanks was quite poor and the chances of a British Army Centurion hitting a moving Soviet Army T-55 or T-62 on all but the flattest ground was low indeed. Nevertheless this was enough to keep British interest away from the Swedish tank until 1968 when the British and Swedish governments agreed to have two Strv 103s tested in the UK at the Bovington tank ranges. Two Strv 103As took part in the trials engaging a number of targets from both stationary and mobile positions. The trials also tested the tank across various forms of terrain as well as assessing its reliability.

Strv 103bThe trials amazed the British observers. The Bovington testers reported back that the S-Tank (as the British referred to it finding its Swedish designation something of a mouthful) held numerous advantages over turreted tanks in their tests. The gun being built in to the hull improved stabilisation compared to a Centurion or Chieftain and also the S-Tank was harder to detect and engage quickly than the relatively mammoth-like Chieftain. When the trials were complete the British started to look at the S-Tank with even greater interest and enthusiasm but the trials at Bovington could only tell them so much. What they needed was to test the tank alongside the standard vehicles of the British Army in an operational theatre and compare the two. To that end they began putting together a plan to conduct exercises with British crews operating a number of vehicles alongside and even against the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR)’s Chieftains. Here the tank would be tested in terrain and operational conditions exactly like those they would face in the event of a Soviet thrust from East Germany.

The British Army reasoned that it would need around ten vehicles to properly assess the S-Tank in the field looking at things such as reliability and effectiveness in combined operations. This was a large number for a trial and required support from the Swedish Army to provide the vehicles. The Swedish decided to support the request believing that a successful outcome of the trials might encourage both a highly sought after export sale as well as providing a stamp of approval of the design from the British which could improve the prestige of Swedish engineering.

S-Tank on British transporter (Swedish Army)

S-Tank on British transporter (Swedish Army)

The exercise was scheduled for the summer of 1973. In early 1973 a number of crews from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) were selected for the program and sent to Sweden for training on how to operate the new type. It is important to note that the British crews were primarily trained in the actual operation of the vehicle with tactics remaining primarily British. Upon completion of the training the tanks and their newly trained crews made their way to West Germany for the crews to familiarise themselves with operating the vehicle in the terrain where they would be conducting the exercise in July 1973. With so much invested in the exercise the Swedish sent their own observation mission. The exercise saw two units facing one another; one known as OPFOR with a mix of Chieftains and S-Tanks while BLUFOR operated with Chieftains only. The trials were carried out over a period of nine days and saw the S-Tank operate in a number of scenarios alongside and against Chieftains, Scorpion light tanks and FV432 armoured personnel carriers.

The exercise progressed well and the British crews praised the reliability of the S-Tank which never fell below 90% (there was never a point where less than nine of the ten S-Tanks were not available). By comparison the Chieftains had an appallingly low serviceability rate to the point where a number of OPFOR’s Chieftain’s had to be transferred to BLUFOR to replace broken down ones and keep the exercise going. However, the enthusiasm the British Army had shown after Bovington for the S-Tank was now dropping off. The 2nd RTR crews didn’t seem to perform any better than their Cheiftain comrades when it came down to engaging the enemy. They admitted that there were times that the S-Tank was superior to the Chieftain namely when operating defensively in confined spaces however the tests also showed that the S-Tank had to expose more of its hull when firing over embankments or down from hilltops. Also the fixed gun left the tank vulnerable in an ambush since the whole vehicle had to turn and face an attacker increasing its vulnerability whereas a Chieftain could both retreat and defend itself simultaneously. In the end the British Army concluded that the advantages of the S-Tank were not enough to warrant an acquisition and interest was suspended.

S-Tank British Army 2

The Swedish were not happy. The Swedish observation mission published a damning report on the exercise effectively dismissing the results and heavily criticising the British tank crews and commanders. Among other things the Swedes criticised the conduct of British crews as being very unprofessional and significantly below the average Swedish crew which resulted in a very poor showing of the S-Tank. The Swedes also criticised the fact that British gunners could not engage a target without the tank commander’s order. In the Swedish Army they stated that the S-Tank had a much higher number of firings because they operated on the principle of whomever sees the target first can fire. The incredible report even goes as far as to state that British tank crew’s eyesight was rather poor and not properly tested like Swedish crews.

In terms of tactics the Swedes were aghast at how thinly the British tanks were spread across a defensible line. They argued that to effectively hold an area of territory the number of tanks that were being used needed to be deployed under half a kilometre but British crews deployed them as far along as 800m. This criticism reflects how different British and Swedish operational needs were. Swedish tank units had a high number of vehicles to defend a relatively small proportion of land. British units had a similar number of vehicles but had to defend a much wider line on more open terrain against a numerically superior force. The wide line was needed to limit Soviet tanks’ ability to break through gaps and surround British units. It was this fact alone that actually dictated the design of the Chieftain which was bigger and more powerful than the vast majority of Soviet tanks allowing it to be able to confidently engage a numerically superior force. Just how good the Chieftain was at this role was dramatically displayed in 1991 when a Kuwaiti Chieftain held a street against a number of Iraqi T-55s and T-72s and was only destroyed when the crew abandoned the vehicle after it ran out of ammunition.

All these criticisms proved first and foremost was that the S-Tank was designed for the Swedish Army and not the British Army. The S-Tank or (Strv 103) was a tank for the Swedish theatre where the main concern was defence in heavily wooded terrain where the tank’s low profile made it easy to hide and limited an enemy’s movements. On the plains of West Germany however those attributes became more questionable and given that the Royal Tank Regiments of the British Army suffered at the hands of the Germans in World War II because of equipment that wasn’t up to the task the British elected to stick with the Chieftain leaving the “British Army S-Tank” concept as something of a brief flirtation only.

You can view some translated sections of the Swedish report and some fascinating photographs of the exercise by clicking here 

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.