Winston Churchill & the First Tanks
Winston Churchill is considered one of the best political leaders of the 20th century. His number of achievements during World War II, especially, have elevated him to the forefront of war-time greats. People have been tipping their hats to Churchill since then, and even now, he is glorified in books and movies, written about in biographies, and is a staple of every WWII documentary made, always sporting his signature hat.
One of Churchill’s most notable achievements may have come from his role in creating the very first military tank prototype, which would then go on to inspire every tank that came after it.
It all started in 1914. A British army colonel named Ernest Swinton and the secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defense William Hankey thought up a brilliant new idea in response to the trench warfare of WWI. They wanted an armored vehicle with conveyor-belt-like tracks over its wheels that could break through enemy lines and traverse rough terrain.
Long before Winston Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister for two separate terms, he was the First Lord of the Admiralty (the political head of the Royal Navy in Britain). At the time, he was quite enamored with the idea of a “land boat,” so when Swinton and Hankey came to him for appeal, he gladly organized a Landships Committee to develop a prototype. There was an issue of safety, however. They didn’t want their enemies to know they were building a “land boat”, so they came up with idea of telling the production crew that the vehicle they were building would be used to carry water on the battlefield (a different theory says the shells of the new vehicles resembled water tanks). Either way, the new vehicles were shipped in crates labeled “tank” and the name stuck.
The very first military tank prototype, coined “Little Willie”, (a name used by the British press to mock German Imperial Prince Wilhelm), was unveiled in September of 1915. Sadly, however, its layout was gawky and it was a sluggish performer, managing a top speed of only 2 mph. The tank frequently became over heated and couldn’t cross trenches very well, either. Thus, a second prototype was requested. For the record, Little Willie didn’t go to waste. Even though the tank never saw combat, it was a huge leap in military technology, and helped manufacturers learn from Little Willie’s flaws in order to improve future tank designs. Little Willie currently sits at The Tank Museum in Bovington, England to educate and fascinate tank enthusiasts. In a nice nod to the tank, during the remainder of WWI some tank crews referred to their vehicles as “Willies”, while in 1922 the Royal Tank Regiment adopted the folk song My Boy Willie as its regimental march.
In 1916, the second prototype tank “Big Willie” was ready for battle! Like Mel Gibson in Braveheart ready! Well, unfortunately, just like Mel in that movie, it didn’t go too well for Big Willie either. It made its debut at the First Battle of the Somme near Courcelette, France, on September 15 of that year. The first batch of tanks, collectively called the Mark I, were overwhelmingly hot inside, noisy, awkward, and lumbering. They also suffered mechanical malfunctions on the battlefield. Still, many recognized the potential of the vehicles.
Soon it was back to the drawing board, and the tanks went back into production to sort out further design problems. After the tank was modified and improved, more than 400 Mark IV’s debuted at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, lozenge shaped but ready for combat (the first tank to use the design we still employ today was France’s Renault FT tank, which we’ll talk about in a later post). The new Mark’s were much more successful than the Mark I, and they managed to capture 8,000 enemy troops and 100 guns. Later, the Mark V was introduced in mid-1918, and over 2,000 were produced during that time.
The rest, as they say, is history. Winston Churchill went on to become the Prime Minister of Great Britain, an influential presence in WWII and a powerful ally to the U.S. The military tank (or “land ship” as Churchill affectionately called them) is still manufactured and operated by military forces around the world, in addition to being used for entertainment purposes at tank driving attractions, parades, and film sets.
So tip your hats to ole Churchy, will ya? He’s part of the reason Tank America even exists. And P.S., our tank driving opens to the public in just a few short weeks! You can pre-book Tank America’s tank experiences here. We can’t wait till you enlist!