Tank Design

In the following extract from his book 'Armoured Farmers - Tankies Tales', Malcolm Cleverley rather cleverly, (sorry to hard to resist that one) puts a new slant on tank design, maybe, just maybe, Swinton could have saved himself a whole world of hurt. I would like to thank Malcolm for allowing me to use this material and the cartoons which he has also drawn himself.

For details on how to how to purchase his book and other items please visit his website Malcyartwork


Okay so everyone knows that with WW1 came the advent of trench warfare and the machine gun, that efficient killer of men. This had the boffins at the War office scratching their heads in dismay. The trick of soldiers standing up and walking slowly towards the enemy didn’t work. Why? Well because that was exactly what the Hun expected them to do! “Bugger!” Said one boffin to another, “We’d better try something else!” Dismally that failed too, after all, just because the men now stood up and ran quickly at the Hun, didn’t make an iota of difeference. The German machine guns were a hell of a lot quicker than the Infantry. “B******s!” Exclaimed the boffin; “we’re in trouble if we don’t think of something new, and quick!” he said as he scratched his oversized bald head. His colleague, who had been thinking to himself, resignedly muttered, “ I wish I was as clever as that old twat Leonardo Da Vinci!” The first boffin looked up and suddenly shouted; “ Bloody bugger! Of course! Didn’t he draw some sort of land machine to protect its crew?” They now scoured their reference library, eventually finding the design they sought. “S***, we can’t build that, it looks so stupid that we’ll be laughed off the battlefield!” Said one to the other. His colleagues reply came; “I never said we’d build that,” he laughed, “all I want to do is steal the idea, modify the design to modernise it, and then when it’s finished tell the sceptics it was us, and ask who the f*** was Leonardo da whatsisname any way?”

Having thought carefully about their problem they threw down their pencils in disgust. “Jesus” said one, “how the hell are we going to do this? These flippers we’ve drawn will be as much use as t*ts on a fish for a land vehicle! We may as well take one of those new fangled American agricultural tractors designed by that fellow.. Holt, with its thingies, oh you know... tracks, that’s them, and use that!” He laughed. “Hey, that’s not such a bad bloody idea,” said his partner scribbling furiously with his pencil. “We’ll cover it in iron or steel plate which we’ll call armour, but what do we call the vehicle?” He intonedmalcyart 1 as the pair now stood at the urinals. His pal, glancing down nosily at his neighbours appendage laughed; “what you’ve got there is a little Willy!” “Bloody good name that!” retorted the other boffin thoughtfully. “The Boche would never guess what the f*** it is from that name!” And the first prototype Tank, ‘Little Willy’ was born.

When the trials were finished and the Admiralty had accepted the concept of a ‘Little Willy’, they decided that a machine named after a scientist’s penis was a little distasteful. So after due consideration and their knowledge being mainly to do with water, they hit on the name ‘Tank’, after all that’s what it looked like, a huge water tank!  So it was, that in due course, the first Mark 1 ‘Mother’ Tanks rolled from the production line onto the French and Belgian battlefields, scaring the shit out of the Germans on the way.

Since the Tanks inception, British ‘men in white coats’ seem to have struggled with the design of Tanks. Okay, we invented it and we built it! The ‘others’ have always ‘copied’ it. So why then, have we continually ‘bodged’ it? Well, we know what the three main characteristics of the Tank are, after all we thought of them! There’s firepower, protection and mobility, when all three are correctly balanced this leads to the ultimate battlefield characteristic of flexibility. To look at some of the fledgling designs that we’ve come up with, you could be forgiven for thinking that we didn’t have a clue!

After the ‘Mother’ had taken to the field, it was quickly modified to increase its trench crossing  and steering capabilities by, putting a huge pair of wheels on the back! This only met with limited success, after all, the ferocity of German artillery barrages that met the appearance of Tanks in an attack, soon ripped the wheels off! The boffins drew, modified and thought up all manner of things. Tanks suddenly became ‘Male’ or ‘Female’, the difference being that ‘Males’ had larger pieces of field artillery fitted, ‘Females’ on the other hand were armed with machine guns. Later in the war newer designs were built, the rhomboidal shape of the Tanks was lengthened by adding a ‘Tadpole tail’ which did, successfully increase the Tanks trench crossing ability. Tanks appeared one day, lumbering slowly forward, their ungainly shapes carrying, perched on top, huge bundles of wood. These were known as ‘Fascines’ and when a Tank approached a deep trench, the fascine would be rolled into the trench, and the Tank could drive safely across it. This was, the fore runner of the modern Royal Engineers AVRE with its demolition gun or ‘dustbin chucker’.

The newspaper articles of the time hailed the Tank as ‘The War Winning’ machine! I, as a Tankie, do believe this even though the sceptics say that it was not. Let’s face it, imagine you are a German foot soldier in your trench. The continual barrage one morning lifts and, there before you trundles a huge metal box, heading straight for you spitting fire and lead in every direction, smoke belching from its exhaust. Crap yourself? I should think so! The Tanks may not have been much faster than walking pace but, unlike the Infantry, they couldn’t be stopped by machine gun fire. Then they are on your position, travelling up and down your trench line raking your previously safe haven with, thousands of unstoppable machine gun bullets. Behind them come the enemy Infantry, and there are thousands of them, they’ve come safely through your defences, and having now emerged from behind the cover of the advancing Tanks, they can’t wait to stick their bayonets right up your a***!

Malcyart4Now, while this mayhem was happening all along the front line, where were the Cavalry? Well, with the advent of WW1 they had, in the face of artillery and MG fire, found themselves literally blown from the battlefield. Certainly in many Tank actions, the reason for eventual failure of the attack was, that the cavalry were so sceptical about ‘breakthrough and exploitation’ that, they simply chose to remain undercover. The cavalry officers deemed Tanks as a ‘flash in the pan’, sat as they were, behind a wood out of sight, their officers were heard to say; “Let the Tanks cock this one up, we’ll rest a while, Rupert pass me another glass of port, there’s a good chap!” The Tanks speed did not match its ‘shock action’. The mechanical technology that existed at the time could not exploit the effect that Tanks could have on the enemy. Not to matter, the boffins were working on the ‘cavalry solution’.

Once more the boffins were stood at the urinals.
“Did you read in the Times, that the bally cavalry were sat on their backsides again at the Somme?” asked one of the other, “ Oh yeah, they’re lazy buggers all right!” Replied the other guy buttoning up his fly. “What do you say we come up with something that’ll really f*** up the cavalry’s brains?” queried the first guy wiping his hands on his trousers. “Like what for example, a fast Tank?” Asked his chum. “God, but you are full of absolutely fantastic bloody ideas!” Enthused the first guy. Off they went and started to beaver away at their drawing tables. In due course one stood up from his work. He grabbed the other fellow by the arm pointing at his drawing and said; “Here James, take a look a look at this!” James, confused at the question said, “Oh all right, if I must, whip it out then!” The colleague, also confused now exploded, “WHIPPET! F*** me how do you think up these names? It’s perfect for this Tank… fast as a Whippet!” He slapped his pal, who was hurriedly re-buttoning up his fly, hard on the back. “You are great!” He continued, “B******, thought my luck was in!” Was James’ only mumbled comment.

So the Medium A. ‘Whippet’ was born, armed with three machine guns and a top speed faster than a man could run, it was soon seen running ‘rampant’ around the battlefields. The advent of these Tanks created something of a race. The different nations involved in this conflict, not to be outdone by either friend or foe, were busy concocting their own designs. The French came up with vehicles such as the St. Chamond and the Schneider. The Germans spent most of the time repainting captured British Tanks and throwing them back into the fray. But eventually they too came up with an example of Teutonic might in the shape of the A7V. This was a monster of a vehicle, cramming every available inch of space with a huge crew of eighteen men, it sallied forth into the maelstrom. Its future did not bode well, its huge bulk and slow speed made it vulnerable and unreliable. In fact an infantryman with body armour and a peashooter would have achieved more success. Looking at this machine, nobody could have possibly foreseen the massive impact that Germany would, in the future, have on Tank design and tactics! During the latter stages even the Americans, ‘never one to be out done’ had a crack at designing and building Tanks. They mainly copied our designs but, they were bigger of course! The war ended in 1918 with a bit of a fizzle, with it the Tank race petered out too. As I’ve already explained, the Cavalry were now to be found at the War Office plotting the demise of, “ Those f****** upstarts in the Tank Corps!” even though the King intervened, the huge financial burden levied on the nation meant that our two friendly boffins were, ‘put on the backburner’.


What of Germany? Well, the German army felt that they had been stabbed in the back by their politicians. “Ready to stop fighting the stinking Tommies?” Said a General one evening. “I should think not!” He continued while topping up his and his companions schnapps glasses. His companion, a disenchanted government official said; “What were we doing? The bastards had the Panzers, und we sat with unser thumbs up unser arsches! I will never let this happen again!”

The General responded with; “F*** the world, we will schau them! What we need now ist a complete shit to lead uns to world domination!” Listening outside the door stood a diminutive greasy looking fellow, his hair a black oily slick swept over one eye, his moustache, now smaller in size since the shaving accident, a toothbrush sized bush under his nose. His name? Oh do come on! Adolph Hitler of course! He sneered; “Oh yes, we will show the world what a tw*t I can be!” In that instant the world’s future was being re-written.

Now, under the terms of the Versailles treaty the allies had sought to ensure that Germany, would never be able to muster enough military might to once more become a threat. In theory this was great, in reality it had holes in it big enough to, strangely enough, drive a Tank through! Hitler’s rise to stardom brought with it money for armaments. His ‘build agricultural tractors’ in Sweden policy should have had us screaming in the stalls! After all, we got the damn ideas from tractors! But did it ring alarm bells? Did it hell. War? Unthinkable in the average British mind of the late 20’s and 30’s. Our men were back home, what was left of them! So, who wanted another war? Not the stupid Hun, we’d right royally whipped their a**** in 1918, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to start another one, would they?

It was this totally ignorant and blasé attitude in Britain that ruled the roost. Oh yes everyone acknowledged what an important part the Tanks had played ‘except the cavalry’ of course. But now was a time for singing and dancing and long may it continue. If only it had, who knows what the modern world would now be like? British Tank designers and builders such as Vickers were scratching their heads. James and Frederick, our two WW1 designers were now working for Vickers, their time at the W.O had come to an end. One morning while in the toilet James turned to Fred and said, “I’ve come up with a whizzo idea for a new Tank, it’s got one turret and two engines giving it a top speed of forty mph!” “How big’s the gun?” Enquired Fred. “It’s a 20inch supplemented by two MG’s!” Replied James. “Well, you can forget that as a idea then, can’t you, the bosses these days are only looking at designs which have a minimum of three turrets, a peashooter being in each one as a gun, an engine driving the Tank at 15mph maximum and NO f****** machine guns!” Came the response from Fred. Having finished at the urinals they stood facing each other pondering, eventually Fred said; “James, put your f****** dick away!” James did as asked and they left. “B*******!” Mumbled James.. “Thought my luck was in!”

So it was that between the wars we as a nation fell behind in the race which was continuing, unchecked, behind the scenes. We even fell behind in the tactical race, even though our great minds such as Swinton were advocating the shape of things to come. As usual the Germans, in the shape of Generals such as Guderian, were stealing our ideas and seeing how they could fit in with their plans. We were playing on Salisbury Plain with great ideas such as radio communication and inter-arm co-operation. The Germans on the other hand, were taking these same ideas and fully integrating them at an alarming speed. We were churning out a bewildering array of different Tank types. We had everything from small two man, Carden ‘Tankettes’ through light and medium Tanks to heavy and even heavier Tanks.

But all were a combination of moderately protected, poorly powered and dreadfully armed vehicles. Our design principles said that the size of the gun is governed by the size of the turret. But we were reluctant to build bigger Tanks to facilitate the larger weapons required for effective shooting of other Tanks. We seemed to concentrate on ‘Infantry support’ Tanks, forgetting the possibility of ‘Tank versus Tank’ combat. Anyway, nobody had anything ‘that we knew about’ to beat us. Of course as the German military build up became blindingly obvious, peoples ideas changed somewhat. Suddenly Fred and James’ life became quite frantic. One morning at the urinals, Fred said to James; “Hells a poppin’, I’ve been told to build something that works! What shall I do?” James instantly replied; “Me too, I’ve come up with the idea of armour plating an Austin seven sticking a 2 pounder out the front and calling it a ‘matilda’!” he said. “F****** good idea James, and you’re so full of them too!”responded Fred. “I think I love you!” Crooned James to Fred, but it was too late, the toilet’s swing door was already settling into the doorjamb.

‘Matilda’ was born as a Tank, but it certainly wasn’t based on an Austin Seven, it was a thickly armoured Infantry type Tank. It was impervious to all but the biggest German guns. The Germans actually quite admired it when eventually they came up against it. But as usual, its design was not conceived with Tank combat in mind. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, it found itself faced with some stark truths. Firstly our Tank force was woefully under strength for the task ahead. Secondly, our Tanks themselves, with a couple of exceptions were, very inadequate for their allotted jobs. Our tactics were fairly well practised but, not as modern or effective as the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ doctrine. So here we were with our inadequate armour being hurriedly shipped abroad as part of the BEF, to France and to face the advancing, well equipped German army. The history books do say that the German army was possibly not as well equipped as the common belief says. I know it relied still, on large quantities of horse drawn power but, the spearhead, which after all counted most, was mechanised. The British army was deposited into a nearly hopeless attempt to halt the German flow.

3RTR was thrown across the channel at short notice with its Tanks but with very little or, no ammo. Once our Regiment found its way out into the open countryside, due to confusion in the BEF command structure, it found itself isolated and unsure of what was happening. Never the less, once the decision was taken to evacuate the BEF, 3RTR distinguished itself by stemming the German advance, at great sacrifice to itself, and protecting Calais to allow evacuation. The remnants of the Regiment managed to just escape capture leaving its broken Tanks and equipment strewn across the French countryside.

Throughout WW2 the design leaders remained, the Germans with their vast industrial might. The Russians though, had surprised the Germans when, the Blitzkrieg had run into the outstanding Soviet T34 Tank. This was designed to incorporate all the best features of the Tank. It was fast, well armoured and packed a sufficiently potent punch to be able to stop the average German Panzer in its tracks. What’s more, it was simple to build and operate, cheap to build and very reliable. When one considers the vast logistical problems involved with the size of Russia, the Tank was ideal. The Germans quickly realised that they now faced a problem large enough to make them think again. The answer? Capture a T34, ship it to Germany and let the boffins take a look. One day at the Krupps factory, stood two scientists, Jan and Friederich, at a urinal. “ Shit, but ze T34 ve haf ist damn goot!” Exclaimed Jan. “Ja, but ve vill make somethink tvice as gut!” retorted Friedrich. He continued; “It cannot be so very difficult as, ze T34 vas built by stupid communistisch scum!” “But, it can be crewed by ze vomen!” explained Jan. “Ha, who needs ze f****** vomen!” Sneered Friedrich as he did up his trousers. Jan immediately said; “Ja, I agree, who needs ze f****** vomen, Friedrich I zink I luf you!” But as he turned it was too late, Friedrich had left, the toilets swinging door already settling in the doorjamb. “Shiiiit!” Was Jan’s only comment.

But in due course the Germans produced the ‘Panther’ and its big brother ‘King Tiger’ to beat the crap out of anything that got in the way, thereby joining the already successful ‘Tiger 1’. Industrial attrition would eventually bring Germany to its knees. It was great having the best Tanks in the world but, you need steel and an economy to build them, and oil, fuel and ammunition to run them. So even though they were the best Tanks of their era, hammering forth and conquering all, there were, in the end, simply not enough of them to alter the course of the war. This was also combined with the Germans knack of ‘over engineering’ everything they touched. They had missed the fact that the T34 was simplicity itself. Consequently both the Panther and King Tiger were slow and expensive to build. I would argue that without doubt, Panther was the outstanding Tank of WW2. Had it been built alone and without a confused Hitler prevaricating about also building King Tiger, it could possibly have turned the war around, if produced in large enough quantities! But it was not to be, and the war’s outcome is confined to the history books. And thank god it ended in our favour!

Britain during the war, had frantically been trying to redress the balance. Relying on the lend-lease Tanks, such as the Sherman, from America, it was desperate to prove it could build a successful Tank. The odds however were not in our favour. The war thus far had taken its toll on our great nation. Some designs in the ‘Cruiser’ class had met with limited success but, also with their share of disaster. Later in the war having learnt lessons against the German Afrika Korps in the desert struggle. We seemed to pull back a little, but still a big failing was our lack of sufficient firepower. Not until we retro fitted the Sherman Tank with a larger gun, renaming it ‘The firefly’, could we attempt to take on the ‘Tiger’ threat with any chance of winning! By the end of the war we had designed some fairly successful Tanks, the ‘Cromwell’ and ‘Comet’ being two noteworthy examples. The Comet actually served into, I believe the early 80’s with the Irish army.

By 1945 Britain, having got its act together, had laid down plans for what was to be Centurion. This Tank would prove to be the mainstay of our Royal Armoured Corps until the early to mid sixties. Its reliability and effectiveness becoming the benchmark for the other nations of the world. Too late for service in WW2 it was to prove itself in Korea and conflicts around the world, especially as it was bought by many nations, Israel having been a particular fan. Building on its reputation, Britain in due course decided to modernise and commissioned Chieftain which, even though it was dogged with many problems. The concept of a Main Battle Tank came about as, even during Centurions era, we had experimented with heavy tank technology in the form of Conqueror, which was not a great success. So it was simple, one main Tank with other tasks being carried out by ‘specific to task’ vehicles.

I have during the course of this book, highlighted some of Chieftains problems. But I don’t wish to be unfair to what was essentially, ‘not a bad old bus’. Its problems really only concerned its ability to move from A to B in a military fashion i.e. without breaking down. It always seemed unfair to us that, so much emphasis had been placed on its various systems but not enough on it’s mobility. Fine I understand that our doctrine was based more on ‘stay and fight’. But to stay we first had to get to where we were meant to be staying! Once there the fire control system was superb and, we were led to believe that our protection was second to none. But a chilling thought was that when boffins talk about ‘survivability’ they mean the weapons platform and not the crew inside. We knew we could sit and hit targets at ranges way in excess of our potential Soviet foes maximum range.

We knew also that Russian Tank crewmen were recruited, at a maximum height of 5’ 3’’. We also knew that Russian vehicles that were fitted with Auto-Loaders were unreliable as the machinery couldn’t differentiate between the ammunition and the commanders forearm! Of course, the other thing we knew was that the Soviets had a lot of Tanks, so many in fact that we would have to kill four of theirs before we ourselves were killed. On the bright side we had also learnt that Russian Tank crews had a propensity for drinking their vehicles’ anti-freeze which was alcohol based!


So in the 1970’s the world’s status quo in the Tank stakes was fairly even. Britain’s Chieftain with its technical advances was mechanically, less than reliable but, fantastic at all the other arts of Tank virtue, it’s gun could hit a gnat at 3500 metres using its computerised fire control equipment, its armour was deemed impervious to all known types of ammunition and it’s crews were the best in the world. Germany’s Leopard 1 was adequate in protection, punchy in its firepower (the tried and tested British 105mm gun) and supremely efficient in its mobility, but only because it was the lightest tank of its type. American Tanks came in a vast array of types and sizes but, their mainstay Tank, the M60 was mechanically questionable and the Tank in general was undergoing massive refits to modernise its technology.

Israel with all its experience of relatively modern Tank warfare in the middle east had been very busy. I feel that it is easy to forget the Israeli’s and their contribution to tank warfare. At this time they were operating British Centurions but, decided to fit more efficient diesel powered units. They had modified the American Sherman into what became the ‘Super Sherman’. They also used the Americans M60 and older M48. So as can be seen, Israel was invaluable in testing various designs from different countries and through battlefield experience, modifying the vehicles to optimise their salient features.

But, in a urinal somewhere in Israel, stood two boffins. The first looked at his colleague and said; “David I’m a bit p***** off with sorting out the cock ups of the other countries tank designers!” David replied, “Samuel, I know exactly what you mean, but what can we do? Design our own?” “S***, David! Of course we could, We’ll nick all the best bits off the ones we have and combine them in ours’!” Samuel excitedly replied and then continued; “we’ll change bits round so they don’t guess what we’ve done, like, putting the engine in the front instead of the back. Then in the back we’ll put a compartment for carrying Infantry or wounded”. David now chirped; “but what’ll we call it, all the good names and numbers have been used already!” Samuel now pondered and then; “I know! we’ll call it Merkava, the thick Westerners won’t know it simply means Chariot!” David turned and said “Samuel, do you know how much I’ve always loved you?” It was too late, as the toilet door had already shut as Samuel rushed down the corridor, pencil in hand. “Bugger!” Was David’s only comment. Thus the concept of Israel’s MBT was born, and a very successful tank it is too!

The seventies passed, the eighties dropped onto the Tank world like.. a big... dropping thing! Bang! The Tank race took off again. It was started by NATO’s German, British and American members joining together to develop a joint Tank project. However the project was unsuccessful, apparently everybody concerned felt their own bits were best. The project broke up, each country taking their technology with them. Britain then cruised for awhile until; the Germans launched Leopard 2, shortly followed by the Americans with their M1 Abrams.

At the MOD alarm bells rang. Boffins were seen running in every direction, buttoning their flies and departing hurriedly from the toilets, cries of “Bugger!” screaming through the air. As a throng gathered in the meeting room someone said; “What the f*** is going on?” The reply came loud and clear, “The f****** Yanks and Krauts have got the drop on us, brought out new Tanks haven’t they, the bastards!” “B*******!” chorused the gathered crowd. “What will we f****** do now?” Asked a guy with fifteen pencils balanced behind one of his ears. Another studious looking chap had been rubbing his chin in thought, then he looked up and said; “Well, we could be sneaky! Iran is, as we know a f*** up! But before the Shah was kicked out he paid us to develop that.. what’s its name.... ah yes... the Shir Tank. I know there’s a job lot of them laying around somewhere!” “Yes! In Leeds!” Interjected someone else. The government ‘think tank’ now buzzed with excitement, many suggestions flying around the room. Eventually one chap jumped up on the table top and calling for silence, made a statement; “We’ll take the Shir and put Chieftains gun kit in the turret, change the number plates, make a few other modifications, paint it green and black and give it a name! What name though? Anyone need a p***?” When the crowd returned from the urinals, a name had been chosen, after much toilet debate and unheard declarations of love for each other. The name? Oh yes, Challenger of course!

Challenger is without doubt the best British Tank ever. It has achieved (not without problems), the nearest balance of characteristics in any British Tank to date (I can’t comment on Challenger 2). The Chieftains, steel being replaced by Chobham composite armour, Horstman suspension being superseded by Hydrogas suspension units and the BL L60 at last in the bin, the engine now being a thoroughbred Rolls Royce CV12 Turbo charged power pack. Of course as I mentioned, the gun control equipment came from Chieftain in which, it had been great. But it had been designed for an MBT that on roads, was pushing it to get to 30mph. The guns stabiliser had only to cope with around 20mph during travel ‘cross country’. Now it sat like a malignant growth in a ‘new generation’ MBT which could achieve around 30mph over bumpy terrain! The result was a mismatch of technology which I’m glad to say has been rectified. The engine and gearbox could now be replaced in well under an hour in battlefield conditions. This is a far cry from Chieftains cumbersome procedures for repairs. But, Chieftain was not yet dead! There was not enough money nor Challengers to replace the Chieftains in service! So back in the MOD toilets, someone came up with the cracking idea of retro fitting the remaining Chieftains with ‘Stillbrew’ supplementary armour. The first time I saw this I laughed. The front of the turret looked as if a YTS welding team had spot welded a huge metal bulge to the front of the turret. Oh dear, not the best of ideas!

Both Challenger and the ‘Stillbrew’ Chieftains were fitted with TOGS (Thermal Observation Gunnery System), now the commander and gunner had TV monitors through which to view the world and its targets. The Thermal sight head was able to read the ambient temperatures of its surroundings building a perfect black and white effect picture in the monitors! This system is impervious to all weathers, darkness, smoke and in some instances the terrain. A vehicle or persons, heat glows like a neon light on the screen. The accuracy of the picture enabling the crew to recognise a comrades or enemies face in the dark at immense distances. Warfare now is no longer dawn to dusk in a Tank, it is literally 24/7 (as the modern terminology expresses it!). This places more strain on the already exhausted men who man our tanks.

The future? Its now 2056, a shout goes out in the halls of the Department of Earth Defence, Whitehall, London; “Bloody hell, the Saturnians have got a new Tank!” the reply echoes in the corridor; “Anyone need a p***?”

Running footsteps are heard on the polished floor!