Hawker Hurricane IIA Z2389 “XR-J” at Brooklands Museum

A collection of pictures of Hawker Hurricane IIA Z2389 “XR-J” on display at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey.

All photos were taken on April 5th 2016
Photos: Tony Wilkins


This aircraft has a fascinating history being one of a number of Hawker Hurricanes delivered to the Soviet Air Force during World War II. The aircraft was delivered as part of Arctic convoy PQ16 in May 1942. In Soviet service the aircraft was assigned to the 767th Regiment of the Red Air Force based on the Kola Penninsula.

On June 20th 1942 the aircraft was shot down along with two other Hurricanes when they engaged a superior force of Messerschmitt Bf109Fs and Bf110s over Murmansk. The remains of the aircraft were discovered in 1996 and partial restoration began before it was delivered to Brooklands in 1997 for completion. It was unveiled to the public in 2010 on the 75th anniversary of the first flight of a Hurricane (November 1935).

According to Brooklands’ website the long term goal is to restore the aircraft to taxying condition.

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Soviet Hawker Hurricane Specials

General Kuznetsov climbs from a British Hurricane cloaked in Soviet colors (history.net)

General Kuznetsov climbs from a British Hurricane in Soviet colors (history.net)

The Soviet Air Forces were in an extremely poor state when the Germans struck east on June 22nd 1941. The vast majority of their aircraft were relatively impotent in the face of the advanced German Luftwaffe but worse still was the Soviet’s inability to detect incoming raids early enough to respond. Vast numbers of Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe and their bases overrun before being used as forward operating posts against their former owners.

In London the opening of the eastern front by Hitler was greeted with staunch enthusiasm and some disbelief by the military leadership including Churchill who viewed it as an obvious blunder. Hitler hadn’t finished the fight against the British Empire in Western Europe or North Africa and now he was taking on the millions of Soviet soldiers. The superiority in numbers on the battlefield the Soviets were expected to offer however appeared to be evaporating before the eyes of the world as German and their Eastern European allies (Romania, Bulgaria and Finland) appeared unstoppable and once again Blitzkrieg produced victory after victory.

Churchill was no supporter of Stalin. In fact Churchill was a bitter opponent of his regime in Moscow and Communism at large but Nazi Germany was the more immediate threat and going on the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend Churchill offered his support to Stalin. What the Soviets needed were enough aeroplanes to help hold back the tide against the Germans while they relocated their own aviation manufacturing facilities further east out of range of German bombers. Churchill therefore ordered that large numbers of Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters be sent to the Soviet Union via the dangerous Arctic convoys to shore up the depleted Soviet fighter regiments. Additionally, RAF squadrons were sent to both fight alongside the Soviets and help train them by passing on their own experience against the Luftwaffe.

Given the prestige both these aircraft have in the UK it may come as something of a surprise that the Soviet pilots generally disliked their British mounts intensely. The Spitfire was especially unloved since its narrow undercarriage made it extremely awkward to land on the poorly prepared Soviet runways and was considered too fragile to operate effectively in the austere conditions. By contrast the Hurricane was a far more sturdy design that better suited the Soviet’s needs on the ground but in the air the aircraft was considered inferior to the German Messerschmitt Bf109E fighters. One thing the Soviets loathed on both aircraft was their relatively light armament and the fact that the guns were all located in the wings as opposed to around the forward fuselage as on Soviet and German fighters.

Nevertheless the two aircraft were still superior to many of the types the Soviets operated before and could at least hold their own against the Germans for the time being. With 2,952 Hurricanes being delivered to the Soviet Union it was inevitable that the aircraft would be modified in the field by the ever resourceful Soviets to either improve performance or to serve in other roles.


Trainer Conversion

Hawker Hurricane two seater conversion (source unknown)

Hawker Hurricane two seater conversion (source unknown)

For many of the Soviet pilots who survived the German onslaught in the early days the Hurricane was a big leap forward in performance compared to their biplanes such as the I-152 of which there were still 1,000 in service when the Germans attacked. The Hurricane also handled differently to equivalent Soviet designs and as a result the Soviets asked for a two-seater trainer version very early on.

Ten Hurricane Mk.IIs were selected for conversion which involved removing the armour behind the original pilot seat and effectively fitting a duplicate cockpit complete with second windscreen. The extra weight of the second cockpit necessitated the removal of eight of the Mk.II’s twelve Browning .303 machine guns and even then the remaining guns were only ever armed for training purposes. The two seat trainer never had full canopies fitted to them which as well as making them extremely cold in the harsh Soviet weather also caused buffeting problems at high speeds. A similar conversion for the Persian (Iran) Air Force resulted in the same problem leading them to design a blown transparent canopy for the second cockpit to improve the flow of air over the aircraft.

Hawker Hurricane two seater conversion (wp.scn.ru)

Hawker Hurricane two seater conversion (wp.scn.ru)

There is some evidence to show that the conversions were not universal such as differently shaped aft cockpit openings. With the arrival of the newer Soviet types the Hurricane training role was negated and the aircraft were transferred to glider towing and other second-line duties where they were worked to death before scrapping.


Alternative Armament

Like the RAF before them the Soviets quickly learned that the Hurricane’s eight .303 Browning machine guns were too weak to adequately take on the German aircraft with their armour and self-sealing fuel tanks. The Hurricane Mk.II introduced a new wing with twelve .303 Brownings but this was hardly ideal while later models introduced four Hispano 20mm cannons. This had a far better punch and the Soviets did receive some examples of this variant but something needed to be done about the earlier variants.

Hawker Hurricane with ShVak cannons (ran-home.com)

Hawker Hurricane with ShVak cannons (ran-home.com)

The Soviets looked to aero-gun designer B.G. Shpital’nyj from the Yakovlev design bureau in Moscow to design alternative weapon configurations for the Hurricane. With the impending replacement of the type in the fighter role Shpital’nyj was instructed to include ground attack weapons in his redesign. After considering several configurations he eventually settled on;

  • 4x 20 mm ShVAK cannons
  • 2x 7.7 mm ShKAS machine-guns
  • 6x RS-82 ground attack rockets

Around 1,200 airframes were reworked to feature Soviet armament. As well as packing a harder punch against the Germans the Soviet armament also eased the supply chain since they no longer had to rely on replacement parts for the guns to come via the convoys from Britain. A large number of other less official conversions were undertaken in the field and these configurations varied depending on what was available.

This heavier armament had an unfortunate side effect however in that the extra weight caused a deterioration in performance forcing them to be used more and more for ground attack duties and avoiding German fighters altogether. Soviet pilots continued to complain about the Hurricane in this role stating that there was insufficient protection for the pilot and engine compared to the Il-2 Shturmovik and this resulted on more armour being scabbed on. This further reduced performance which in turn increased Soviet complaints.


Artillery Spotter Conversion

Hawker Hurricane BV948 (airwar.ru)

Hawker Hurricane BV948 (airwar.ru)

One of the more fascinating conversions carried out by the Soviets was the development of an artillery spotter/correction version designed to support long range artillery units. Having gained experience building the two seat trainers the Soviets went about converting the aircraft with a second position behind the pilot for an observer who faced rearward and was thus not as obstructed by the aircraft’s wing when looking down as the pilot was. This configuration actually produced what looked like a monoplane version of the earlier Hawker biplane bombers such as the Hawker Hind which share a design lineage with the Hurricane. The conversion also featured a port in the floor for the observer to look straight down below the aircraft and the fitting of a long radio aerial wire from the tail to the cockpit which was no doubt needed to communicate corrective instruction to the artillery units.

To help with defence the observer was given a single 7.7mm ShKas machine gun on a trainable mount. It is possible that like the trainer versions the artillery spotters also had a number of their Browning guns deleted to save weight. It is difficult to establish just how many airframes went through the conversion but researching this article two aircraft have been identified these being BV945 and BV948 which came from the Canadian production line. These aircraft apparently operated over the Leningrad, Volkhov and Kalinin fronts after which they were replaced in the role by Il-2m Shturmoviks. This indicates that the aircraft were operated up to 1943.

Profile of BV948 (sas19456.com)

Profile of BV948 (sas1946.com)


Meteorological Reconnaissance Conversions

With the introduction of the new breed of superior Soviet fighters the ever-complaining Soviet pilots could finally discard the Hurricane from frontline use but with such high numbers still available they were quick to press them in to use for other roles one of which was meteorological reconnaissance. According to some reports around 150 aircraft were modified for this role with equipment to measure air pressure and humidity as well as radio compasses to assist navigation. The aircraft flew frequently in advance of major operations to help ascertain the weather conditions which assisted in planning at staff headquarters. It seems this variant of the aircraft was quite well received by the Soviets and examples were still on charge as late as 1950!


Engine Conversion Proposals

In the early stages of the war keeping the Hurricane flying relied largely on supplies getting through from Britain particularly concerning the 1,480hp Merlin XX engine. Concerns at the rate of which these supplies were getting through coupled with the threat of U-Boats and the Luftwaffe cutting off the convoys led the Soviets to consider replacing the Merlin with their own engines.

Three engines were considered;

  • Shvetsov M-82A 14-cylinder air-cooled radial engine (1,570hp)
  • Tumansky M-88B 14-cylinder air-cooled radial engine (1,100hp)
  • Klimov M-105 V12 liquid-cooled inline engine (1,100hp)

Converting the Hurricane to a radial engine such as the M-82A or M-88B would have required extensive work whereas fitting the M-105 would offer a reduction in performance. Therefore the plan was dropped entirely and no conversions were carried out.


Other Conversions…

Air Ambulance

As strange as it might sound at least one Hurricane was modified as an air ambulance. Details are sketchy and no photos or even a description of what the modification involved appear on the internet but what is known is that it was a two seater that was used and the conversion was carried out in the field.

Ski-Fighter Conversion

A number of Hurricanes had skis fitted in place of their regular landing gear to allow them to operate off snow covered airstrips in the thick Soviet snowstorms of winter. The skis were fixed and actually lightened the aircraft because of the removal of the heavy wheels and hydraulics. The conversion was similar to a Canadian conversion although it is likely this is just a coincidence. Attempts were made to produce a retractable ski system but it proved too problematic and was dropped.

Tactical Reconnaissance Versions

A small number of aircraft had AFA-1 reconnaissance cameras fitted in the rear fuselage. Lacking the speed or altitude to escape interception from the newly introduced Bf109F or Focke-Wulf Fw190 the conversion was not a great success and was used only temporarily.


Hawker Hurricane soviet union 2

The Hurricane was not well-loved by the Soviets but this was not unique to Sydney Camm’s aircraft. Except for the unique Bell P-39 Airacobra the Soviets disliked nearly every American or British fighter they got their hands on. In some cases this was from genuine criticism while in others it had more to do with patriotism. Nevertheless the Hurricane helped keep the Red Air Force fighting when their own planes were either destroyed or being built in the new factories of the east and achieved some notable successes. As the Soviets found out however the Hurricane was an easily adaptable design and whether the Soviets liked to admit it or not the type played its part in the defence of the motherland.

Hind, Hound, Hip & Hare – Russian Aircraft at the Helicopter Museum

A collection of the Russian/Soviet aircraft on display at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare, UK.
History: The Helicopter Museum
Photos: Tony Wilkins


Mil Mi-24D “Hind”, 96+26/421, C/N. 230270110073.

Built in 1981 as a ground attack/assault helicopter and powered by two Klimov TV-3-117 turboshaft engines. The Hind in the Museum collection is a Mi-24D variant, some 350 of which were built at factories in Arsenyev and Rostov-on-Don. Armament includes a 12.7 mm four barrel 9-A 624 machine gun, four Falanga anti-tank missiles and 80 rockets in four under wing pods. First flown on 2nd April 1981 it was delivered to the East German Army based at Basephol, North of Berlin. In early 1992 it was decided to disband the Hind squadrons and its last flight was on 24th February 1992. The German Government allocated it to the Helicopter Museum and a team went to Basephol in early 1995 to dismantle and transport it to the United Kingdom. It was delivered to the Museum on 20th February 1995 with assistance from Bristow Helicopters.


Mil Mi-8PS,10618.

First flown in the early 1960s as Russia’s first turbine-engined medium transport helicopter and with a large open cabin with rear ramp access, more than 11,000 Mi-8 variants have been built to date. The Museum’s example is a rare Mi-8PS, initially delivered to the Polish Air Force in the 1970s for service in a VIP configuration. Externally identifiable by the square, rather than round, cabin windows the PS variant was built in limited numbers for heads of state and similar high-ranking VIPs but modified for a military Command and Control role and allocated to 37PST assault regiment at Leznica Wielka near Lodz. Retired in 2005 this is the first Russian Mil Mi-8 transport helicopter to go on display in the UK and the 18m (60ft) long aircraft arrived at the Museum by road on 5th February 2010.


Mil Mi-4 “Hound”, 9147, C/N. 09147.

The Mil Mi-4 assault transport was the product of an October 1951 ultimatum by Stalin for the design and construction of a transport helicopter within 12 months. Powered by one Shvetsov ASh-82V 14-cylinder two row radial piston engine. More than 3000 Mi-4s were built for military service with the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces and for civil operations with Aeroflot over the following 15 years. The Mi-4 acquired by the Museum was probably built in the fifties and was last in service with the Czechoslovak Air Force. It was purchased by the Museum in 1992 and delivered by road in major sections during the first half of 1993. Reassembly and restoration began in 1995 and was finished in late 1996, but some missing parts are still required, especially in the cockpit area, to complete the restoration.


Mil Mi-1 “Hare”, 2007, C/N. 5112007.

The Mi-1 was designed by Mikhail Mil in 1945 to meet a Soviet requirement for a two/three seat helicopter and is powered by one Ivchenko AI-26V 7-cylinder radial piston engine. The Museum example is a Polish built SM-1 variant, completed by PZL-Swidnik, Poland in February 1959 and delivered to the Polish Air Force. Used primarily for pilot training from 1962 until the late 1980s, the aircraft was then grounded and used for ground instruction. The final log book entry is dated 29th November 1990. Purchased by the Museum in 1992 it was delivered by road in 1993. It is restored in Soviet markings as an example of the first Russian production helicopter.


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I couldn’t be more of an anorak if I tried – Tony Wilkins

English Electric Canberra B(I).6 vs Il-28 “Beagle”

Battle of the jet powered interdictors

Il-28 vs Canberra

The advent of jet technology offered performance far in excess of what propeller technology could deliver particularly at high altitude. This was especially important for bomber crews who wanted an aircraft that could fly faster and higher than any fighter aircraft that could intercept it. The concept had been proven by the superlative De Havilland Mosquito during the war and now the RAF wanted a jet powered replacement. This spurred the development of the English Electric Canberra which first flew on the 13th May 1949 and was soon ordered in to production. Entering squadron service on the 25th May 1951 the RAF was initially disappointed with their new mount as they had wanted a large four engined strategic bomber. All criticism quickly evaporated however as the RAF’s first jet bomber proved to be a superb design with outstanding high altitude performance. During the course of its career the aircraft undertook a plethora of roles ranging from bomber, interdictor, photographic reconnaissance, electronic warfare training and signals reconnaissance to name but a few. In fact the airframe would prove so useful that the PR.9 high altitude reconnaissance variant remained in service until 2006!

The Soviet air force too knew of the potential the jet engine offered but were not as successful in the development of the technology as engineers in Britain. At first they had to make do with captured German technology but then as a gesture of good faith the British offered the Soviets the Rolls-Royce Nene engine. This catapulted Soviet jet technology forward but as relations between east and west quickly soured the Soviets were forced to develop their own engine based on the Nene and this became the Klimov VK-1. Soviet engineers were instructed to build a twin engined tactical bomber powered by the VK-1 and the result was the Il-28 (NATO codename “Beagle”). Often called the “Soviet Canberra” the Il-28 actually flew a year earlier than the RAF aircraft but despite its revolutionary powerplant it was very much a traditional Soviet tactical bomber design featuring a cigar shaped fuselage with the pilot sitting in a fighter style cockpit and straight wings.

Both these aircraft catapulted their respective air arms in to the jet bomber age but the traditional medium bomber concept (streams of bombers in formation to attack a target from around 15,000ft) soon became impossible due to increasingly powerful defences. A role that emerged in the Second World War was that of the interdictor whose job was to attack targets far behind enemy lines that would directly affect the battlefield where the troops were fighting. These primarily concerned lines of communication and supply. Often these aircraft were large twin engined types as these were the only aircraft with the range and hitting power for the job and both the Canberra and Il-28 aircraft were adapted to the role but which was better?


Role

B(I).6 2

The Canberra B(I).6 was a development of the B.6 which was a traditional medium level bomber. The bracketed “I” in the designation denoted that it had an interdictor role meaning it was intended to attack tactical targets that have a direct influence on the battlefield e.g bridges, road convoys, storage centres, etc. It was still capable of operating as a traditional level bomber and trials were conducted in an anti-shipping role although it never undertook this tasking operationally.

IL28 3

The Il-28 was the basic bomber version of the “Beagle” and was designed for fast attacks on enemy positions although like the Canberra it was never really intended for use as a strategic bomber. Following Soviet doctrine the Il-28 was designed to directly support the army and so was used as an interdictor from the start.

Performance

B(I).6 1

The Canberra B(I).6 was powered by a pair Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.7 Mk.109 turbojets that each developed 7,400lbs of thrust. These engines and large wing area gave the aircraft its superb high altitude performance with USAF U-2 pilots who flew the PR.9 version describing it as the more stable aircraft above 50,000ft. The B(I).6 variant has a service ceiling of around 48,000ft but even at this altitude the aircraft is no slouch being able to achieve speeds up to 580mph. To put this in to perspective the main fighter opposition the aircraft could expect to face in the early 1950s, the legendary MiG-15 “Fagot”, is almost identical in performance meaning that intercepting the Canberra would be extremely difficult since it lacks the necessary speed to overtake it. Combat radius was in the region of 810 miles depending on bombload and altitude.

IL28 2

The Il-28 featured two VK-1 turbojets mounted in large nacelles on the wing that also featured the the main undercarriage. These engines gave the aircraft a top speed of 560mph when operating at an altitude of 14,000ft but this deteriorated as the altitude increased. This meant that the Canberra was significantly faster at higher altitudes but on the flipside the Il-28 was faster at lower levels. The smaller surface area of the Il-28’s wing and and the lack of high altitude power in the VK-1s meant that the aircraft had a service ceiling of only 40,000ft. All this reflects how the Soviets planned to use their aircraft; low to medium level supporting the army. The Il-28 had shorter “legs” than the Canberra however with a combat radius in the region of 600 miles; again this was dependent on bombload and altitude both of which affected performance.

Armament

B(I).6 3

To make it as light as possible the original Canberra lacked any gun armament instead using its speed and altitude as its main defence. In the interdictor role however it was deemed that guns would be needed for offensive purposes e.g. strafing convoys of trucks. Therefore a ventral gun pack was developed equipped with a quartet of 20mm Hispano Mk.V cannons in a similar arrangement to that featured on the Bristol Blenheim IVF of World War II vintage. The gun pack was fitted in the rear half of the bomb bay thus reducing the number of bombs that could be carried internally although the space the bomb bay offered meant each gun had a rather generous 500 rounds available to it.

The ventral gun pack was not a permanent fixture and could be removed as and when it was required for the Canberra to carry more bombs. For when the aircraft did carry the guns a pair of underwing pylons could be utilized to make up the shortfall in bombs. Royal Australian Air Force Canberras operating on short range missions over Vietnam went a step further and strapped bombs to the wingtips in place of the long range fuel tank! The Canberra B(I).6 had a total bombload of 8,000lbs and this could be carried in a variety of bomb configurations. The B(I).6 had a tactical nuclear role as well being able to deliver a variety of US and British nuclear weapons most importantly the WE.177A. All nuclear weapons were carried internally.

The underwing pylons were also used to carry a variety of other weapons. Typically these would consist of rocket pods comprising of either 37 2-inch (51 mm) rockets or 2 Matra rocket pods with 18 SNEB 68 mm rockets. A handful of B.16s (upgraded B.6) were wired to carry the Nord AS.30 missile for stand off air to ground attack as well as, potentially, anti-ship operations.

IL28 4

Unlike the Canberra the Il-28 was designed from the outset to have gun armament for use in the strafing role and to that end was fitted with two NR-23 23mm cannons in the nose which individually have a longer range and hitting power than the Canberra’s Hispano Mk.V. The Soviets knew their bomber lacked speed and altitude to escape interception and so it was going to have to defend itself. Therefore the Il-28 featured another pair of NR-23s in a powered tail turret to discourage any fighters from getting too close. The forward guns had 100 rounds each while the tail gun had 250 rounds each.

Maximum internal bombload for the Il-28 was just 6,600lbs although operationally the figure rarely exceeded 2,200lbs. Bombloads larger than this incurred a hefty penalty on performance to such an extent that often, when a bombload closer to its maximum was required, the tail turret would be removed. It also didn’t help that the Il-28 was limited by the dimensions of the bombs it carried because of the small size of the bomb bay.

Other weapons made available to sub-variants of the Il-28 included the ability to launch a 1,380lb torpedo although this variant died a quick death as Soviet Naval Aviation realized that such weapons air-launched were now obsolete. Nevertheless the Chinese did pursue the technology with their Il-28s and the subsequent locally produced H-5 variant of the “Beagle”. The basic Il-28 was incapable of carrying a nuclear weapon in the 1950s due to the sheer size of early Soviet weapons however a dedicated nuclear bomber version was built later which featured a bulged bomb bay.

Conclusion

The Canberra was never meant to be a mud mover instead it was an aircraft optimised for the high altitude role and it is in this capacity it is best remembered. Nevertheless it adapted well to almost every role it was given and remained a sublime aircraft to fly at low to medium level. As an interdiction aircraft it carried a useful bombload and, as the Royal Australian Air Force proved dramatically in Vietnam, could deliver its weapons with a high degree of accuracy. Simplicity was the key to its success being a nuts-and-bolts type meaning provided it could lift it off the ground the Canberra could carry pretty much any equipment or weapon that was asked of it. The B(I).6’s guns gave the aircraft a powerful punch in strafing attacks but as the Indian Air Force found out with their Canberras the size of the aircraft made it a big target to ground fire.

The Il-28 has also enjoyed a long service life (longer than the Canberra if you count the Chinese built H-5s still in service with North Korea) but has not proven as adaptable. Aside from avionic improvements many of the Chinese H-5s that were still operational in the 1990s were hardly anymore capable than the original 1950s vintage aircraft. Il-28 combat experience has been quite disastrous in the hands of third world air forces such as Syria. Nevertheless during the Six Day War the Israelis considered them a high priority target and made great efforts to destroy them on the ground. Interestingly the Pakistani Air Force flew the Chinese built H-5 version alongside US supplied B-57s (a license built version of the Canberra fitted with a tandem cockpit) against the Indian Air Force who flew the Canberra. The Pakistani pilots wholeheartedly agreed that the B-57 was superior and returned the H-5s.

The Pakistani opinion largely sums up the two aircraft. The Canberra has a wider array of weapons available to it, can carry more weapons further and transit/escape at higher altitudes with speeds comparable to a fighter. The only things the Il-28 has in its favour is that at low to medium level it is faster than the Canberra (although in this flight regieme both aircraft are extremely vulnerable to interception) and its smaller dimensions make it a much harder target to hit from the ground.

Multi-Turreted Tanks

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.

Vickers Medium Mk.III

Vickers Medium Mk.III

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.

a1e1 independent

A1E1 Independent

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”.

T28 tank captured

Soviet T-28 – the similarity to the A1E1 is obvious

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.

Cruiser mark i

Cruiser Mk.I

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.

Crusader I

Crusader I

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.

Char 2cAfter 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.