1. The Growth of the Tank Corps Organisation.
In the autumn of 1914, Lt. Col. E.D. Swinton suggested the idea of an armoured vehicle to the military authorities at home. It was not until January 1915, when Mr. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, interested himself in Col. Swinton's suggestion, that the idea of a "land battleship" began to take form. In December 1915, the first experimental machine was completed and, in March 1916, the headquarters of what was then known as the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps was established at Bisley under the command of Col. Swinton. Later this section was moved to Elveden Camp, where six companies of tanks were raised.
On the 13th August 1916, four of these companies began to embark for France, but the Headquarters of the Heavy Section and its commander remained in England. The supply of machines being dealt with by the "Mechanical Warfare Supply Department" of the Ministry of Munitions, which was controlled by Lt. Col. Albert Stern.
On the 15th September 1916, tanks were used for the first time in action on the battlefield of the Somme. A fortnight later Lt. Col. Elles was placed in command of the Heavy Section in France. On the 8th of October, a provisional establishment was approved; it consisted of one Brigade - Major, one D.A.A. and Q.M.G., one staff captain and one intelligence officer. A few days later, the Tank Centre at Wool was formed, under the command of Brigadier-General Anley. Simultaneously, it was decided to form 9 battalions of tanks of seventy-two machines, each on a three brigade footing. Each battalion was to have 3 companies of 4 fighting sections of 5 machines and a headquarter section of 12 machines.
On the 18th November, the 4 companies in France were expanded to 4 battalions, and later on these battalions were formed into the first 2 Tank Brigades. Before the end of the year a G.S.O.2 was added to the headquarters of what was now know as the Heavy Branch machine Gun Corps. Early in 1917, the number of machines in each battalion was cut to 60, but even this number was found to be too large. Consequently, later on, it was reduced to 48 (36 fighting and 12 training machines). In 1918, it was further reduced to 42, only 6 training machines then being considered as sufficient.
In March 1917, General Anley was appointed Administrative Commander of the Heavy Branch, with its headquarters in London, and, in May, Major-General Sir John Capper, who eventually, became Director-General of the Tank Corps and Chairman of the Tank Committee, succeeded him. This had been formed to co-ordinate the demands of the Army and the supply from the Ministry of Munitions.
After the battle of Arras in 1917, a proposal was made to expand the Heavy Branch to 18 battalions and, on the 28th July 1917, this expansion was authorised. Simultaneously, the Heavy Branch became known as the Tank Corps, its commander in France being promoted to the rank of Major General. During August and September 1917, on account of the heavy casualties it suffered at the third battle of Ypres, the expansion was cancelled, only to be revived again, on the 6th October. New establishments were submitted and received approval on the 27th November. Meanwhile, the battle of Cambrai had taken place, and 2 new establishments known as the higher and lower organisations were put forward. The first was for 3 groups of 3 brigades each, in all 27 battalions; the second of the 3 groups of 2 brigades each or 18 battalions. On the 4th December, a conference was held at GHQ, Montreuil, to decide on which of these 2 organisations should be adopted and the lower establishment was agreed upon.
The battle of Cambrai had shown what the tank could do. Nevertheless, from the 4th December 1917 to the 4th July 1918, the Tank Corps had to face many difficulties. First, establishments had to be settled; secondly, in April, all expansion was suspended and 2 of the 3 battalions then forming in England were reduced to cadres, the remaining one being converted into an Armoured Car battalion. Further orders were received at Tank Corps Headquarters to form 3 battalions into Lewis-Gun units. These proposals reduced the Tank Corps from 18 battalions to 12.
These reductions were still in the process of being carried out when, on the 4th July 1918, the astonishing victory at Hamel caused GHQ to press for tanks.
By the 15th July, there were 15 battalions in France, several of which were, however, only partially trained. Between this date and the 11th November, only 3 fresh battalions (including an American one) were sent from England.
The victory of the French tanks at the battle of Soissons accentuated the importance of these machines. The Inter-Allied Tank Committee, which had first met at Versailles in April 1918, met again. Strongly supported by Marshall Foch, the British Government was asked to raise the Tank Corps to 36 battalions. On the 31st July, the Tank Directorate was abolished and a branch known as S.D.7 created, under the Director of Staff Duties at the War Office, to carry out the expansion.
S.D.7 at once asked for 4,000 men and that each battalion in France should send home 30% of its personnel as a nucleus for the new battalions. Further, a sum of £500,000.00 was required to increase the accommodation at Wool. A programme was then worked out to enable 16 new battalions to be in France by the spring of 1919.
On the 22nd October, S.D.7 received, from France, the proposed new establishments. These establishments consisted of 96 pages of foolscap. They were passed to the War Office and were back in the hands of General Elles at Tank Corps Headquarters, Bermicourt, on the afternoon of the 26th October. Events of the 11th November would bring matters to a halt.
2. The Organisation of Tank Units.
The organisation of the units of the Tank Corps naturally changed with the development of the Corps. In July 1918, it was as follows: In England, the Training Centre was at Wool and the Tank Testing Section at Newbury. The supply of personnel and machines was carried out briefly on the following lines: recruits were either enlisted at Home or withdrawn from units in France. They were then sent to Wool. Here they were trained for 4 months and either drafted to a new battalion forming at Wool or despatched to the Tank Corps depot at Mers in France. At this depot they remained for about 6 weeks when they were drafted to battalions.
The Tank Testing Section was under the control of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department. To it all machines were sent from the manufacturers. Thence they were railed to Richborough and shipped by Channel Ferry to Havre. From Harve they were sent to the Central Stores at Erin and made ready to hand over to battalions.
In August 1918, there were 5 Brigades of tanks in France, comprising 14 tank battalions and one armoured car battalion.
The headquarters of a brigade consisted of a brigadier-general, brigade-major, staff captain, intelligence officer, brigade engineer, supply officer, signal officer, equipment officer and a brigade military transport officer. That of a battalion consisted of a lieutenant colonel, second in command, adjutant, reconnaissance officer, tank engineer, equipment officer and a medical officer. Eventually, the tank engineer officers were withdrawn.
Besides the brigades, there was a headquarters Carrier Unit controlling 5 Tank Supply Companies of 24 supply tanks each and 2 Gun-Carrier Companies of about 16 gun-carriers each. Though these machines were built for the transportation of 60 pounders or 6 inch Howitzers, they were normally used for supply work. A supply tank or gun-carrier could carry upto 8 tons of supplies over fair ground.
The technical organisation was as follows: (1) a Central Workshop, organised in four sections, under a lieutenant-colonel; (2) a Central Stores under a major; (3) five advanced workshops each under a major and (4) two Tank Field Companies for salvage work under a major.
Besides the above, at this time, the Tank Corps had attached to it the 711th Company Army Service Corps (Mechanical Transport), and the 8th Squadron, Royal Air Force.
3. The Tank Corps Central Workshops.
Towards the close of 1916, it was decided, the heavy repair work and stores of the Heavy Branch, should be carried out by the Heavy Branch itself. A site for these workshops was selected at Erin, a small village about two and a half miles north of the Heavy Branch Headquarters at Bermicourt. Some 6 acres were allotted for shops, five for the personnel camp, eight for the testing ground and seven for the railway sidings. Work was begun early in January 1917. Four sawmills were at once taken over and their assistance proved of the greatest help. A well giving 6,000 gallons of water per hour was sunk and, despite severe frost, the whole work was completed by the spring.
During this busy time of construction, preparations had, simultaneously, to be made for the battle of Arras. 260 special mountings were turned out so that Tanks might be equipped with Lewis Guns in place of Vickers. To add to the many difficulties, at the time the battle took place, the frost broke and, a sea of mud surrounded the workshops.
By the 1st April 1917, the workshops consisted of 11 "B" type aeroplane hangers measuring 72 feet by 60 feet. Besides other temporary shelters, 55 Nissan huts and a large dinning hall had been built for the men and 22 Armstrong huts erected for the Officers.
During the early summer of 1917, the following special work was carried out:
1. The building of a facsimile of a section of the Ostend sea wall for what became known as the "Hush Operation";
2. The conversion of all Mark I tanks into supply tanks;
3. The fitting of wind shields to all tanks;
4. The design and manufacture of maintenance tools and
5. The provision and fitting of 1,000 gunner's seats.
As regards the tank stores, the procedure was as follows:
All stores on arrival from England were checked and placed in bins. A tally card for each item was kept in the Stores, which consisted of the part number, name of the part and issue and receipts. Maximum and minimum quantities to be held in stock were marked on each card, the maximum being the last 3 months' issues of the part concerned and the minimum being half the maximum. As soon as the part in question came down to the minimum, the tally card clerk passed the card to the indent clerk who immediately ordered on England the maximum quantity of the part in question. This system allowed the authorities at home in England 6 weeks in which to deliver the spare part and, though theoretically, no part should ever have been out of stock, in practice this frequently occurred.
The next period of stress for the workshops occurred when preparations had to be taken in hand for the battle of Ypres. The situation was, however, considerably relieved by the arrival of the 51st Chinese Labour Company. This consisted, at first, of 4 officers and 250 Chinamen.
The system employed in the workshop was very similar to that to be found in a commercial engineering factory. Instead of a costing Department, a Works Office was formed and, instead of placing a cost on each job, a system of man-hours was instituted. Thus, as soon as the works received the order from Headquarters, either to repair a tank or carry out experimental work, the order was placed through the Works Office. A works order number was given to it, and the order was then passed to the shops with so many man-hours allotted to it. At the end of each week, the sections compiled their work sheets, under the separate order numbers, for the quantity of man-hours expended. A works meeting was held weekly, at which was discussed the question of why certain work had absorbed more man-hours than allotted to it. Also, all questions of organisation, improvement and general detail of the work was considered.
About the beginning of October 1917, plans were compiled for new workshops, which were to be built at Teneur, about a mile east of Erin. These workshops were to provide for the repair of a thousand tanks, and their construction was put in hand in early November.
Meanwhile, the workshops at Erin were faced with further battle preparations, namely, for the attack in the Cambrai area. Many problems had to be solved, the main one being how to enable the tanks to cross a trench 15 feet wide. Various schemes were tested and eventually the one adopted was the tank fascine. This consisted of 100 - 150 ordinary fascines bound together and carried on the roof of the tank. A release gear enabled the tank driver to shoot the bundle over the nose of the tank into the trench bottom. The production of 400 tank fascines was immediately put into hand and no less then 60,000 ordinary 10 foot fascines were handled in the sidings, only to be carried to the site where they were "bundled".
At this time, the workshops also had in hand the manufacture of 110 tank sledges for the carriage of tank supplies, some 3,000 cubic feet of timber being used for these. 127 tanks were repaired and issued, each tank requiring approximately 120 man hours to set it right. 100 sets of towing gear were manufactured and fitted, along with 500 sets of special tackle to hold and release the unditching beam. 30 tons of steel was smithed and machined into various large and small parts, and 2,000 fathoms of chain were made up into various sizes which necessitated the welding of over 3,000 links. The personnel of the workshops worked continuously in 8 hourly shifts without a break of any kind.
The reorganisation of the technical branch of the Tank Corps was begun in early January 1918. The battalion workshops were abolished and the personnel distributed between the Central Workshops and the 5 new advanced workshops.
The layout of the new workshops at Tenuer consisted of 9 "B" type steel aeroplane hangers 162 feet by 88 feet. On the 29th March 1918, the works moved from Erin to Tenuer, the whole of the buildings at Erin being taken over by the Central Stores, which henceforth became distinctly separate from the workshops. No sooner had this move been completed when, on account of the rapid German advance, the workshop personnel were formed into a Lewis Gun battalion and plans were made ready for the demolition of the shops with evacuation of the area. In the midst of this, thousands of refugees streamed through the Tank Corps area. All possible help was given to them and, in all, some 10,000 men, women and children were accommodated and fed at Tenuer and Erin.
The advent of the new Mk. V tank, the first of which went into action in July 1918, introduced a new problem. It was found these machines very easily caught fire when hit, and the resulting damage increased the man-hours needed to repair the same by as much as 50%. Steps were taken to discover the cause. It was found to be due to the excessive heat given off by the exhausts of the Ricardo engine, the temperature being some 120 degrees F. This was reduced to 85 degrees F by the construction of an airtight engine casing and blades fitted in the periphery of the flywheel, which forced air from the interior of the tank past the engine and through the louvers in the roof of the tank.
With the reorganisation of the Tank Corps in the autumn, the O.C. Workshops were asked to submit a new establishment in order to cope with the repair of 4,500 tanks. This establishment consisted of 57 Officers and 1,785 other ranks, excluding Chinese.
4. The Tank Corps Salvage or Field Companies.
The necessity for the salvage of tanks, and tank material, was recognised by those in charge of design and production long before the first machines went overseas. It was not until December 1916, that a small party of men was formed for this work. As the Corps grew, a 4-section company was organised in February 1917, and later a second company was added together with a Special Salvage Detachment, in order to cope with the extreme difficulties met during the third battle of Ypres. In this battle alone, stores to the then value of £1,300,000 were recovered. During the 4 weeks between the 8th August and the 8th September 1918, the following figures give some idea of the work carried out by the Salvage Companies.
1 544 tanks handed over to salvage;
2 269 tanks saved;
3 96 tanks entrained for the Central Workshops and
4 42 tanks at the railhead ready for entrainment.
The salvage of spares was carried out as follows:
Every company going into action detailed a special tank equipment salvage party to work under the direction of the company equipment officer. This party, which was provided with horses and wagons, began its work immediately the attack was launched. When a tank was reported out of action and unable to return to its rallying point, the party proceeded to the machine and removed all such parts as were not necessary for the actual salvage of the tank. By dealing expeditiously with this work, losses from the following causes were minimised:
1 shell fire once the enemy has obtained the range of the tank;
2 capture by the enemy if a successful hostile counter-attack was made and
3 Purloining by our own troops