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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

The Navy invented the tank!

One hundred years ago today, the First Battle of Cambrai commenced, the first British Army combined arms attack of WW1 and one in which huge numbers of tanks were deployed to crush the Germans’ barbed-wire defences. Quite naturally, the Royal Tank Regiment claims credit for this battle, but few people recognise that the Royal Navy can claim credit for coming up with the concept for the tank and armoured car.

In the first month after the start of WW1, the Royal Naval Air Service deployed ‘armoured cars’ to Belgium and Northern France. Commander C R Samson (who features in my first and third novels) instigated the fitting of steel boiler plates and a single machine gun pointing backwards, to Rolls Royce cars. Rolls Royces, and later Lanchesters, were chosen because their powerful engines were suitable to take the additional weight of the armour. The RNAS used the armoured cars to search and recover downed airmen and to scout for new airfields as the Germans quickly overran allied airfields. The cars performed so well that on 3 September 1914 Churchill, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the formation of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division as a separate wing of the RNAS.

The Germans were not slow to spot the success of the armoured cars either. They began to dig trenches across roads as obstacles for the armoured cars. The navy responded by looking to replace the wheels of their cars with tracks so that they could cross the ditches, in the same way they could see the agricultural vehicles in Lincolnshire operate. As the static war of the trenches set in on the Western Front, the Armoured Car Division became less effective and its squadrons were redeployed to other theatres, including Russia, Africa, Gallipoli and Palestine. As an aside, two famous members of the Armoured Car Division were the Duke of Westminster and Cherry-Garrard, who went to Antarctica on Scott’s last expedition.

In February 1915, Churchill established the Landships Committee to develop armoured fighting vehicles capable of fighting on the Western Front. Key members of this committee were an RNAS officer, Flight Commander Thomas Hetherington and a Colonel of the Royal Naval Division, Wilfred Dumble. The committee’s work was kept secret from Kitchener and the War Office for fear its work would be blocked. William Foster and Company of Lincoln, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, were given the contract to develop a prototype tracked vehicle. By then, in July 1915, the War Office learned of the project and took it over, along with the naval personnel working on it.

Finally, to protect the secrecy of the machines being developed, they were referred to as ‘water carriers’, with the cover story that they were designed for carrying water to front line troops. Somebody then recognised that some wag would be bound to contract the term to WC with the potential for all sorts of ribaldry, so it was decided to use the term ‘tanks’ as the code word for the new fighting vehicles. The name has stuck ever since.

RNAS armoured car stuck in the mud WW1

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