CHURCHILL AND THE LANDSHIPS COMMITTEE: TANKS AND ARMORED CARS IN WW I

May 31, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Posted in History, Military, Research, Science & Technology, United Kingdom | Leave a comment

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Churchill and the Landships Committee:

Tanks in WW I

The Landships Committee was a small British war cabinet committee established in February 1915 to deal with the design and construction of what would turn out to be tanks during the First World War. Headed by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the Landships Committee was composed mainly of naval officers, politicians and engineers.

The committee came about when Colonel Maurice Hankey took Colonel Ernest Swinton‘s proposals for an armoured trench-crossing vehicle to Churchill after they had been discounted by General French and other senior staff in the British Army.

The committee was chaired by Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, the Director of Naval Construction (and also responsible for airships) at the Admiralty. Among those who attended were Thomas Hetherington, Robert Francis Macfie and Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton.

Many had been inspired by early ideas for from pre-war years. Among these would be the armoured “war car” built in the early 1890s in Eastern Europe. The armoured car was already in use with the Royal Naval Air Service on the continent. Another inspiration was a 1903 short story by HG Wells, The Land Ironclads, and all but Winston Churchill were willing to borrow Wells’ creation despite it being restricted under copyright law.

The Landships Committee was effectively responsible for creating the first tank corps. A small battery of the Motor Machine Gun Corps in Surrey was used as a cover before the Tank Corps was established in 1916. Both battalions were replaced by the Royal Armoured Corps and the Royal Artillery after the war. Today, the tank’s naval lineage can be traced directly back to its naval designers by some of its past and present terminology: the hull, deck, sponsons, bow, turret, and hatches. Prior to the tank, armies used horses and field guns (cannon), and possessed no gun designed to fire within a confined space. Consequently, the first army tank guns were borrowed from the navy.

Formation

The committee was formed at Churchill’s request in February 1915. It started with only three: d’Eyncourt, as President, Thomas Hetherington and Col Wilfred Dumble of the Naval Brigade. Heatherington had proposed a large wheeled landship (some 300 tons) and this was Churchill’s initial interest. A former Royal Engineer, Dumble had managed the London Omnibus Co. and brought back to service in response to the urgent need for transport by the Brigade in Antwerp – he had been an adjutant to Colonel Crompton who was trying to develop cross-country vehicles for the Army. Dumble recommended Crompton to the committee as an expert on heavy traction. The committee’s activities were concealed from Kitchener at the War Office, the Board of the Admiralty and the Treasury – all of whom were expected to block the project. The committee was introduced to tracked designs and Crompton was made technical adviser. Tritton of Foster’s was introduced to the committee. Heatherington, accompanied by his assistant Albert Stern, travelled to the front to inspect German trench design. Ironically they missed meeting Swinton. The committee considered numerous designs including articulated and wheeled. A display of the Killen Strait tractor before the Ministry of Munitions and others in mid 1915 led to an Army specification for a fighting machine based on Swinton’s earlier memorandum.

Churchill and the Landships Committee: Tanks

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