Recommended Reading #2

Fairey Fulmar N1854 (7)

Looking for more on British military history, news and technology? Below are a list of articles that I recommend you take a look at. Some are recent while others not so but all are worth a read.

Fairey Fulmar; Design & Development
A fascinating and detailed account of the story surrounding the genesis of the Fairey Fulmar; the Fleet Air Arm’s two-seat, heavy monoplane fighter and a truly under-appreciated aircraft of World War II.

WW2 UK Armour
An overview of British armoured fighting vehicles in World War II. 

Principle Fighters of 1916
A look at the types of aircraft used to wage the first battle for air supremacy over the battlefield.

The Pathfinders
Around the borders of Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire in an area near Huntingdon, are a group of airfields that are synonymous with target marking. ‘Pathfinder country’ is an area rich in aviation history and played a major part in the European Theatre of Operations.




NEWS: Battle begins for Challenger II upgrade contract


After having been somewhat neglected in the 2010 defence review the Challenger II Main Challenger II MBT updateBattle Tank (MBT) is now one step closer to receiving a major update. Known as the Challenger II Life Extension Program (LEP) the update will see the tank have its service life extended to 2035 instead of the original out-of-service date of 2025. The contract which is said to be worth around £700 million will include logistical support for the tank and will also cover a similar upgrade to Omani Challenger IIs.

The MoD gave prospective companies until January 14th 2016 to produce an initial proposal for their assessment. It has now been revealed that three companies are in the running; BAE Systems (who originally built the tank), Lockheed Martin UK and General Dynamics UK. It was thought that German company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann who build the excellent Leopard 2 tank for a number of European countries would submit a proposal but pulled out after the option of new or second-hand Leopards was ruled out by the British Army.

From a political standpoint, British company BAE Systems has something of an advantage after Prime Minister David Cameron pledged more military contracts for British arms manufacturers in the run up to last year’s election. However, General Dynamics UK already has a large order for new Scout vehicles for the Army and could undercut BAE Systems if they agree to a new combined contract to cut overall costs especially if the American company promises to have the work carried out primarily in the UK.

Planned service entry for the updated tank is currently set as late 2018.


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 

SITREP – April 2015

Lancaster_wireless_operator_WWII_IWM_CH_8790Welcome to Defence of the Realm’s SITREP for April 2015. For those of you who are new followers and have never seen one of these posts before I would like to welcome you and thank you for giving the site a look. Basically, this is my opportunity to let you you know how the site is doing and the direction it will be taking over the next month. It is also your opportunity to let me know your thoughts on the site in general as well as to offer your own suggestions/input in to any of the projects that are on the horizon.

Well, April is nearly over but what a month it has been. Two major events have taken place in terms of the site over the past month. Firstly, I have set up a Twitter account which although is in my own name it is primarily for the site. Feel free to follow and message me with any comments/suggestions/questions/etc. You can find my Twitter page by clicking here. I look forward to hearing from you.

The second big news of course is the establishment of a Defence of the Realm YouTube page. This has been a goal of mine ever since I started the site. At the moment it is still pretty primitive as I am learning more and more about the technology (and how to stop my voice from droning on too much) but I am hoping that over time this will grow into an informative amateur documentary archive. I am still interested in Podcasting if anyone else would like to join in and if so please message me.

Rest assured however that despite these developments the main site remains my top priority. After three quite intensive months April did go a little quiet and this was due mainly to me becoming quite ill. Nevertheless I am back now and planning my next few articles.

So here’s what’s in store;

  • Following on from my Dreadnoughts article I intend to do more work on the Warships Classification category. I am already planning articles on Flotilla Leaders and Bomb Ships (a type of shore bombardment vessel used up to the 19th century).
  • I am still working on my next aircraft comparison. As I said before it will be a comparison of the British Meteor F.8 and the French Dassault Ouragon. Another comparison I thought might be interesting to cover would be the De Havilland Vampire and the Saab J.21R in what I am calling Battle of the Boom Jets.
  • The Wilkins family are planning a trip to Bovington Tank Museum which I am very excited about. Not sure when it will be yet but it should be over the next few months.
  • Planning to revisit Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum, the Helicopter Museum in Weston-super-mare and the fabulous Jet Age Museum in Gloucester with the goal of recording video for the YouTube site. If you would like to see some of the photos from previous visits then don’t forget to check out the Galleries page.

Well that’s all for the moment.

Thank you again for taking the time to visit the site. Your support is greatly appreciated.

All the best.

Tony Wilkins

Dad and Danni

Dad, you can get out now…

Royal Tank Regiment: A Pictorial History (George Forty)

a pictorial history of the tank regimentIt’s amazing what little gems you can find dotted around the odd used book or charity shop. Take this book which I picked up for less than £1 in a charity shop in Caldicot (in researching the background of the book I stumbled across a used copy for sale on Amazon for £9.49). George Forty’s book documents the early experiments with armoured vehicles before moving on to discuss the formation of the first Royal Tank Regiments and then chronicling the maturation of British armoured units up to the 1980s (the date of publication).

What more could you want for less than a pound?

As the title implies this book is lavishly illustrated with many rare images from the early days of the regiment. This is perhaps one of the best books I have ever read when it comes to looking at this landmark period. The book takes an almost personal approach to describing what life was like in the early tank regiments and their experiences with taking the idea of armoured warfare and making it a reality.

What I will say however is that this depth isn’t maintained throughout the book and once the stories of the First World War are finished the chapters covering the inter-war years feel almost rushed by comparison. This is a shame as there were many interesting points which were brought up and then passed over such as British tanks in the Russian Civil War and the use of armoured cars by the Army during the general strikes of the 1920s. The depth returns during the Second World War chapters but teeters off once again in the post war years. I really would have liked more on the Korean War with the same quality as the earlier chapters.

Anyone looking for a technical book will be disappointed as this is a book about the people not the machines. This really is worth it just for the opening chapters about the birth of the tank.

Photographic Targets of Opportunity

It was a rather drizzly Monday morning and I found myself travelling on the M4 between Newport and Chepstow after taking my wife to the dentist to have a tooth removed. Then suddenly in the distance I spotted three rather large trucks and on the back of these trucks were Challenger II tanks.

Despite the left side of her face feeling very numb my ever loving (alternatively “ever suffering”) wife took out her phone and snapped a few pictures for me to share on the site. Taking pictures of moving vehicles in a moving vehicle is difficult at the best of times but she did well and I am sure I will be making it up to her somehow. To top it off she then added a short video which I have posted on the Facebook page.

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.