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World War I The war to end all wars.

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Old 08 Aug 17, 06:09
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Evolution of the tank and tank tactics Part 6

The Behemoths

The germ of this idea was sown by H G Wells at the very beginning of the 20th century in what proved an extremely popular a short story ‘The land ironclads’ published in the Strand magazine. In it a fleet of huge armoured fighting vehicles defeated a conventional army. By the beginning of 1915 schemes were being mooted for for even larger machines some of which would have been colossal and were sometimes referred to as land battleships. Proposals for machines with 100 foot diameter wheels and mounting 6 inch naval guns were not untypical. One was in effect a half scale submarine fitted with giant wheels. In 1915 Commander Hetherington proposed :

A platform mounted on three wheels, of which the front 2 are drivers and the stern for steering, armed with three turrets, each containing two 4-inch guns.
Diameter of wheels: 40 feet
Tread of main wheels: 13 feet 4 inches
Tread of steering-wheel: 5 feet
Overall length: 100 feet
Overall width: 80 feet
Overall height: 46 feet
Clear height under body: 17 feet
Armour: 3 inch
Total weight: 300 tons


This was actually scaled down from his original idea of a vehicle with 100 foot wheels that mounted 12 inch guns but after some thought he considered this might be a bit too heavy

These machines were intended to roll right through the enemy lines, crushing all before them, and then roll across enemy territory smashing buildings, destroying telephone and electric cables and uprooting railway tracks (using dangling anchors) until, as one proposer put it, they reached Berlin. This is not the place to examine the technical practicalities and impracticalities (mainly the latter) of these huge machines but it is worth looking at the flawed tactical thinking behind them.

The first problem that such vehicles would encounter would be that of their deployment. Even components such as the wheels could not be transported by rail. Effectively they could only reach the front broken down into relatively small components or they could roll there under their own power, causing significant damage and disruption behind their own lines. If shipped in parts the vehicles would need to be erected (there is no other word applicable) immediately behind the British lines. This would have required the use of large cranes, which in turn would have had to be shipped there in parts and themselves erected. The whole site would have the air of a small shipyard. The erection of any significant number of land battleships would be a major industrial undertaking and impossible to conceal from enemy air reconnaissance. German long range heavy artillery would then doubtless add an incentive to get the work finished. It is interesting to note that an American project to build such a juggernaut was abandoned when the US Corps of Engineers reported that they wouldn’t have a crane big enough to erect it.

If successfully erected the land battleships would roll into battle with the German artillery having had ample warning and time to mass in the appropriate places. Such vast and relatively slow moving vehicles would present easy targets. A few shells could easily damage one of the big wheels to the extent that the machine could not move after which it would be doomed.

Even without their vulnerability to artillery the behemoths would be very limited by logistical factors. Such huge and heavy machines would consume petrol or kerosene in vast quantities and would be unable to travel far without a large entourage of mobile fuel bowsers and it is difficult to see how these could survive on the battlefield much less negotiate their way through to open country beyond.

Such mad ideas do tend to persist being attractive to megalomaniacs and the like. As late as WW2 someone sold Hitler the idea of a vehicle mounting the main turret from a pocket battleship and Speer had to devote significant effort to ensure that resources were not wasted trying to build it.
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Evolution of the tank and tank tactics Part 7

Killen-Strait to Big Willie

Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Nobody has asked for them and nobody wants them. Those officers and men are wasting their time and not pulling their proper weight in the war. If I has my way I would disband the whole lot of them. Anyway I am going to do my best that is done and stop all this armoured car and caterpillar nonsense.
Admiral Sir Cecil Lambert, 4th Sea Lord talking to Commodore Murray Seuter 1915


Not everyone was enthused about tracked vehicles. Although the British Army had experimented with a Hornsby caterpillar tractor as early as 1905 they had decided against it. Hornsby sold the patent to Benjamin Holt in the USA and he trademarked the name caterpillar which Hornsby had first coined. In 1911 the Master General of Ordnance, Stanley von Donop rejected the acquisition of a Holt tractor for evaluation. Even within those working with the Landship committee there was resistance. Tritton for example fought a vigorous rearguard action supporting the big wheel concept. Nevertheless it was becoming increasingly obvious that wheeled vehicles would not be able to meet the conditions on the Western Front. With the transfer of Hornsby tracks to America the USA had become the main source of track systems with Best, Bullock, Holt, Killen Strait and Lombard all producing tracked vehicles. In January 1915 the British Army took delivery of its first Holt tractor and these were eventually used in France and Flanders, Italy, Egypt and Palestine and Mesopotamia. Ruston and Hornsby had started to manufacture Holt tractors in Lincoln

In March 1915 the Landship Committee acquired an American Killen Strait tractor for experimentation. This had three track units, a pair at the rear and a single one in front for steering. It proved more apt on rough ground than wheeled vehicles but still had limitations in its ability to handle vertical obstacles and trenches.. Nevertheless an armoured body was produced for it and it was intended to add a machine gun turret. This was never done. There are however unconfirmed accounts of Killen Strait tractors being armoured in Russia in 1917 and at least one fitted with machine gun turret from an RNAS Lanchester armoured car and is said to have seen action against the Germans. If this can be confirmed then it represents Russia's first tank.

In Lincoln Tritton and Wilson supervised the building of a tracked armoured vehicle - the Lincoln No.1. This was essentially an armoured box atop a pair of Bullock Creeping Grip track units (not Holt as has often been claimed). A mock up turret was fitted.. It was not a success as it kept shedding its tracks causing Tritton to declare the caterpillar systems were no good (although caterpillar was a Holt trade mark it had, like Hoover, become very much a generic term.). It was later alleged by Bullock that the workmen at Tritton's company had not understood (or possibly read) the instructions on how to assemble the tracks correctly and this had caused the shedding. However Tritton replaced the tracks with a simple system of his own devising. This eliminated any form of suspension and introduced very basic track plates. This track system was to form the basis of that used on all operational British tanks in WW1. The lack of suspension limited the maximum speed obtainable to under 4mph for heavy tanks - but as the tanks were supposed to support the infantry speed was not deemed important and walking pace was deemed sufficient (when a Mk IV was later fitted with a suspension system in trials it exceeded 12 mph). Unlike French and German tanks that used a Holt suspension system the British tanks did not suffer undue mud clogging.. Fitted with Tritton's tracks the Lincoln No. 1 was renamed Little Willie. It is usually assumed that this is a reference to the German Crown Prince but why Tritton and Wilson would name their vehicle after a not very competent enemy general is not explained - I remain sceptical. The turret was removed as it made the vehicle top heavy.

With Little Willie Britain had achieved what' whilst very far from perfect, was approaching a viable armored fighting vehicle - if only trhe problem of arming it was resolved and someone had given some thought as to how it might be used. Then the Landship Committee revised its specifications demanding far greater trench crossing and vertical obstacles climbing capability than Little Wiiie could achive. Tritton assessed that a vehicle with fifty foot diameter wheels would be needed to achieve what was being asked for. As anyone who has tried to push a buggy up over a kerb will know a wheel has to have a diameter considerably more than twice the height of the vertical obstacle it is trying to surmount to be able to do so. Wilson suggested a rhomboid shaped vehicle with the tracks running completely round it. The forward curve of the tracks would in effect match the arc of the lower part of a fifty foot wheel. This design meant that no turret could be fitted as this would make the vehicle top heavy and likely to tip over sideways whilst crossing a slope (something the early tanks were vulnerable to in any case) and unless removable or retractable would breach railway loading gauge restrictions. The guns were carried in side sponsons (an arrangement entirely acceptable to the naval members of the Landship Committee most of whom had served in warships so armed). In the first three marks of tank these sponsons had to be removed for transport but from the Mark IV onwards they were retractable.

A prototype was made and dubbed Big Willie ( a somewhat unfortunate moniker) although it was also referred to informally as The Slug. The name Mother is often used in various histories but this I believe was largely a retrospective appellation when it could be seen to have been the first of all the tanks.
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Evolution of the tank and tank tactics Part 8

This is the last section in this series and takes us into the first tank actions. If one wants to explore the development of British tank tactics to the point of their successful use in an all arms battle such as Amiens I would recommend Men, Ideas, and Tanks: British Military Thought and Armoured Forces, 1903-1939 by J P Harris' He explores and passes a critical eye over some of the theories expounded at the time by men Like Fuller and later analysis by Liddel Hart

Into battle

The tank was first committed to combat in 1916 during the extended battle of the Somme. There were a number instances of British tanks being used towards the end of this battle of which the largest and best known was the action at Flers. Their introduction was hailed as a great success and ‘hyped’ considerably in the Allied (and pro Allied) press around the world. A situation subsequently known as ‘tank euphoria’ in which they were hailed as the new wonder weapon that would win the war in short order. In reality this was almost all propaganda as their use at the Somme might well be described as ham fisted and their impact marginal. Despite the bravery and determination shown by tank crews and some startling individual tank successes, the use of tanks it the Somme can be characterised as; inadequate in number, following an inappropriate tactical doctrine and uncoordinated with the infantry. In addition both the tank crews and the infantry they were supporting were poorly briefed (if at all) whilst the Mk I tanks appear to have been mechanically unreliable. The impact on the course of the battle was marginal. Of course it is all too easy to criticise from a distance of 100 years and it should be remembered that commanders on the ground were involved in making horrendously difficult decisions in the midst of a vast battle that was not going well, tanks were a new and untried weapon and one that had been wrapped in a veil of secrecy. It was inevitable that they would not be used to their best advantage when they first appeared on the battlefield. However there were a number of contributing factors that made the situation worse.

Tanks had been developed under conditions of considerable secrecy. Even the name ‘tank’ was a code word to conceal their existence. One result of this was that many of those senior officers in the field who would either have to deploy them or whose commands would have to cooperate with them had no knowledge of what they looked like or how they would perform until mere days before the event. Even then their introduction might have been limited to a demonstration of a tank climbing over a few obstacles. There was simply no time or opportunity for them to develop or promulgate useful tactics. Some senior officials were convinced that the Somme was the wrong place for the deployment of tanks After attending a demonstration of tanks in Sept 1916 Sir Maurice Hankey wrote in his diary;

“In the evening at dinner, I tackled both the chief of staff, and the sub-chief, about the 'caterpillars' (tanks). My thesis is that it is a mistake to put them into the battle of the Somme. They were built for the purpose of breaking an ordinary trench system with a normal artillery fire only, whereas on the Somme they will have to penetrate a terrific artillery barrage, and will have to operate in a broken country full of shell-craters, where they will be able to see very little.”

The situation was even worse for frontline troops whose first sight or even knowledge of a tank might be when one arrived in their reserve trenches on the eve of the action.

"Something was brought near the reserve trench, camouflaged with a big sheet. We didn't know what it was and were very curious and the Captain got us all out on parade. He said, 'You're wondering what this is. Well, it's a tank', and he took the covers off and that was the very first tank. He told us what we had to do when wemade the attack at Zero Hour was just to wait for the tank to go by us and all we had to do was mop up, consolidate our trench. Well, we were at the parapets, waiting to go over and waiting for the tank. We heard the chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk, then silence! The tank never came.”

When tanks did arrive they were not always welcomed . 2nd Lt Hatton of D company was told by the infanry his tank was supposed to support

"Take your bloody stink box out of it. You are drawing enemy fire on the Australians".

The Landship Committee and the team in Lincoln had developed the tank with a greater emphasis on issues such as track and transmission design than on defining the tactical doctrine. Frequently the first tanks were effectively deployed as mobile siege engines sent in small numbers to deal with particular points of difficulty in the enemy’s defences as they arose. (interestingly the first German tanks, in 1918 were employed in much the same manner). It was assumed that the role of the infantry would be nothing more than to occupy the position taken by the tank, this was a mistaken belief. The individual tank commanders were given very little advance information about the ground over which they were operating. They received details of their objectives shortly before commencing their attacks. This may have been part of the attempt to keep the deployment of the tanks secret until the last minute but it is more likely to have been the result of good old fashioned muddle. In latter First World War tank battles it became quite usual for tank commanders to walk over their approach route to the front line before the attack and to get a view of the ground they would have to cross, at least in the first stages of their advance. They would also be provided with reasonable maps showing the positions of both the British and German trench lines. This was not the case at the Somme in 1916. Indeed there were not enough written orders or maps for more than a third of the tanks so that those tank commanders who had maps had to try and explain the route and the objective to those that didn’t; small wonder that many tanks became ditched even before they crossed the British front line, let alone engaged the enemy. This lack of information also contributed to incidents where tanks not only missed their planned objectives but even opened fire on British trenches.

The tank attack at Flers was an attempt to use almost all the tanks built up to this date en masse. The majority ditched of broke down on the approach and saw no action. They were later recovered. After Flers the tanks on the Somme were used in penny packet attacks - usualy to try and take out a particularly troublesome trench or strong point. Sometimes only a single tank was deployed. Breakdowns continued to be frequent so that when a tank had been promised to the infantry it neder arrived.

The Mk I tank had a hidden weakness; like many tanks that were to follow it, the underside of the vehicle had thinner steel plates than the sides. In the case of the Mk I these were so thin that they could flex when pressure was applied from underneath. Should the tank ‘belly’ or overrun a large rock or tree stump these plates could be forced against the engine’s flywheel, halting it, the engine and the tank. Coupled with the commander and drivers’ lack of knowledge of the ground this may have been a contributing factor to the large number of tanks that failed mechanically during their approach.
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Old 09 Aug 17, 14:52
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I was waiting with baited breath for the finale . I was really just after a reading list, but thank you for that extended summary. Most informative.

Out of interest, who do you think Wells had in mind when he envisaged the opposing armies in 'The Land Ironclads.'
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Originally Posted by jf42 View Post
I was waiting with baited breath for the finale . I was really just after a reading list, but thank you for that extended summary. Most informative.

Out of interest, who do you think Wells had in mind when he envisaged the opposing armies in 'The Land Ironclads.'
A reading list was tricky given your specification of concise. However perhaps the best two covering the aspects you asked for are

The Devils Chariots by John Glanfield
Band of Brigands by Christy Campbell

Neither is concise and both contain some elements that not everyone would agree with but both very good on the whole.

I don't think Wells had any specific countries in mind. I think it was a sort of warning. As Britain's population had reached the point where fewer people were employed in agricultural related work than in industry and service sectors worry was being expressed in the columns of some papers that the nation was becoming one of city dwellers and the skills necessary to fight a major war were being lost. The need to ensure that enough men could ride and shoot was being expressed - this was exacerbated by the poor performance of the British Army in the early stages of the South African War. Wells is effectively making the point that in any future war it would be the industrial nation that would have the decisive advantage. The days of the horse and rifle were ending and those of the internal combustion engine and the machine gun were looming.
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The Automatic Land Cruiser

In 1915 The Cleveland Automatic Machine Company advertised a shell - the text included

"The shell combines two acids that ignite, causing a “terrific explosion, having more power than anything of its kind yet used.”

“Fragments become coated with these acids in exploding and wounds caused by them mean death in terrible agony within four hours if not attended to immediately"

It caused uproar and caused the US Government some embarrassment. In fact the shell was no different from other HE shell of the time but the advertisement does give an insight into the company's thinking. In the same year they also made a proposal for "The Automatic Land Cruiser" - effectively a design for a tank. Whilst no one was prepared to finance the building of this machine (possibly as a result of poisoned shell row) its image later appeared on early US Tank Corps buttons and patches.

Had it been built it would have suffered the same defects as the French Schneider. Its fuel tanks were positioned high up in the hull and would have been vulnerable to fire if the armour was penetrated. The track design would have meant that it had very limited vertical obstacle and poor trench crossing capability. There also appears to have been no provision for clearing mud off the tracks which would have clogged very quickly.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MarkV View Post
A reading list was tricky given your specification of concise. However perhaps the best two covering the aspects you asked for are

The Devils Chariots by John Glanfield
Band of Brigands by Christy Campbell

Neither is concise and both contain some elements that not everyone would agree with but both very good on the whole.

I don't think Wells had any specific countries in mind. I think it was a sort of warning. As Britain's population had reached the point where fewer people were employed in agricultural related work than in industry and service sectors worry was being expressed in the columns of some papers that the nation was becoming one of city dwellers and the skills necessary to fight a major war were being lost. The need to ensure that enough men could ride and shoot was being expressed - this was exacerbated by the poor performance of the British Army in the early stages of the South African War. Wells is effectively making the point that in any future war it would be the industrial nation that would have the decisive advantage. The days of the horse and rifle were ending and those of the internal combustion engine and the machine gun were looming.
Thanks for those.

Re. The Land Ironclads; yes, having tried to cast Germans, British, Imperial Colonials, Boers etc., in the opposing roles without being convinced, it occurred to me that the industrialised, technically adept crews of the Ironclads and the bluff, sporting mounted infantry (with whom the War Correspondent is 'embedded) who face the attack, might both be facets of British society; one reflecting the dominant military culture and the other H.G. Well's view of the country's military potential; Wiltshire versus Manchester, if you like.
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Originally Posted by jf42 View Post
Thanks for those.

Re. The Land Ironclads; yes, having tried to cast Germans, British, Imperial Colonials, Boers etc., in the opposing roles without being convinced, it occurred to me that the industrialised, technically adept crews of the Ironclads and the bluff, sporting mounted infantry (with whom the War Correspondent is 'embedded) who face the attack, might both be facets of British society; one reflecting the dominant military culture and the other H.G. Well's view of the country's military potential; Wiltshire versus Manchester, if you like.
Spencer Jones's From Boer War to World War gives a good account of the British Army's transition between 1901 and 1914
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The Holt mock ups

Pliny Holt used a large Holt tractor as a test bed onto which different mock ups of tank configurations could be fitted. He tried a variety of designs but was never able to convince the US Army to take any of them further, The Army had decided to buy its heavy tanks from Britain and its light ones from France. Manufacture in the USA based on British and French designs would follow. This policy however was not made public at first and photos of Holt's mock ups appeared in various articles in the US press. No mention was made of the fact that they were mostly wood and canvas and the impression given was that here were all American made tanks that would soon be fighting in France.The mock ups sometimes appeared with slogans painted on them. "Can the Kaiser" being popular.

The attached illustration shows one of these. It was armed with four machine guns in a non rotating turret, much like the British Medium A or Whippet.
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The MK VIII*

The MK VIII was developed as a joint Anglo/French/US project to produce a common heavy tank for the intended 1919 offensive. Although the design was British it responded to many requirements raised by the US Tank-board and included a separate engine compartment, a fan system drawing outside air through filters and maintaining the interior at slightly higher than atmospheric pressure (to keep gas out), an internal intercom system, provision for fitting radio and greatly improved protected vision arrangements for the crew. Manufacture was agreed by an international treaty. The USA and France would build new plants, initially Britain would supply parts for those plants to assemble but eventually the USA would assume responsibility for the bulk of manufacture. The war ended before many Mk VIIIs had be produced in Britain and America (France had reneged on her treaty obligation in order to develop the Char 2 instead) At the start of WW2 the Mk VIIIs built in the USA were sold to Canada as scrap (to get round some US neutrality laws) and used for training.

There had been some concern that the Germans might increase the width of their anti tank trenches and ditches in the same way as they had done fter the introduction of the first British tanks. The same solution to this as had been adopted in 1917/18 was applied - a longer tank and so the Mk VIII*was designed. Three new sections were added, one at the front and two behind the sonsons, additional track rollers would also be added. The result was a design for what would have been, if built, the longest tank ever. The attached illustration shows how it would compare with the German K wagen.

How this vehicle woul have been transported is something of a mystery. It was far too long for any extant railway wagon. The K wagen got round this by being designed to break down into sections for transport but there is no evidence that the Mk VIII* had a similar provision. It was never built.
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The Russo Balt Roller

Before WW1 Russo Balt made luxury cars, the Czar was a customer. They were a Russian Rolls Royce. With the outbreak of war, like RR they turned to making armoured cars. In 1917 they proposed a gigantic landship. It would not use wheels or tracks but huge balls. A rear one split into two hemispheres and a massive front one taller than a two story house to crush everything in its path. How it was to be steered is not obvious (nor how it was to be transported). Armament was to include a 203mm gun in a turret resembling those mounted on fortresses and two 76mm guns in a pair of sponsors either side of the front ball plus many machine guns. Power would come from four marine engines in an engine room on the bottom deck.

This was actually considered but the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October brought the project to an end.
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  #42  
Old 21 Aug 17, 10:04
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Schneider-Boirault Articulated tank

The first French tank to see action, the Schneider CA.I was essentially a failure. It was based on Holt track units originally designed for commercial tractors and these were unsuitable for fighting tanks. These were too short and because of their profile had inadequate ability to tackle vertical obstacles, as a result the Schneider could not cross German trench lines without assistance from combat engineers and was prone to becoming ditched. In an attempt to overcome this deficiency but retaining the Holt units Schneider produced a design for an elongated tank using three sets of Holt units with a forth set mounted at an angle on the nose to provide a vertical obstacle capability (this represents a similar approach to the Macafie design I have covered in an earlier post in the is thread.. All that appears to have survived of the new Schneider design is a freehand thee dimensioned drawing in which some details are obscure and subject to different interpretations. I attach my attempt to make sense of the drawing.

What is certain is that it was intended to bristle with guns of various calibres. It would have been somewhere between 80 to 90 feet long. Steering would have been difficult to say the least and, whilst the Germans were unlikely to dig trenches wide enough to block its progress, its lack of maneuverability (the turning circle alone would be huge) would itself have made it difficult to go anywhere. Moreover transporting it to the front would seem impossible.

Obviously a different solution was required and a M. Boirault arived at the design of an articulated tank. This would have two modified Schneider CA.I s linked with a new middle section. The three sections would be linked with huge ball and socket joints, these would be motorised to allow either of the Schneider CA.I sections to be raised to deal with a vertical object. In travel it would have looked like a somewhat arthritic snake but it could be easily uncoupled to allow for railway transport. The principle was demonstrated by modifying two Schneider CA.Is and coupling them back to back. Although this appears to have succeeded no attempt was made to add a middle section - it was simpler and quicker to purchase heavy tanks from Britain.

However in the late 1930s the idea was revived with another three unit articulated tank design . This was made up as follows

1st unit
  • Main fighting compartment
  • flame thrower and its tanks
  • machine-guns
  • electric motors for tracks
2nd unit;:
  • additional fighting compartment
  • turret and gun
  • radio
  • electric motors for tracks
3rd unit:
  • additional fighting compartment
  • electric motors for tracks
  • internal combustion engine and accessories
  • generator for track motors

It was still under official consideration when the German army arrived in Paris with more conventional tanks.
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Last edited by MarkV; 21 Aug 17 at 10:16..
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Old 23 Aug 17, 08:23
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Oberschliesen

Immediately after the Battle of Cambrai Germany had a plan to build 200 or 300 copies of the British Mk IV tank but with an improved transmission system to allow them to be steered by the driver alone. It soon became clear that this could not be done without diverting engines either from a programme for heavy artillery tractors or aircraft manufacture - both of which were regarded as having higher priority and the idea was abandoned. Some captured British tanks were refurbished and their guns replaced with German weapons and 20 German designed A7V tanks were completed. The German high command were in any case not believers in tanks as Hindenburg revealed when inspecting the first A7Vs and their crews in March 1918 "These vehicles probably wont be of much use but since they were built we might as well use them."

Attitudes changed dramatically in August 1918 after the Battle of Amiens. Whilst the army tried desperately to stabilise the Western Front a programme for equipping it with tanks was established. New designs were produced for both light and medium/heavy tanks and ambitious orders placed directly off the drawing board with various factories for delivery by Spring 1919. The main tank was to be the Oberschliesen. The unsuitable Holt track units used on the A7V were abandoned in favour of a new design. The main armament would be be a 57mm gun in a central turret. Overall the design appears in advance of anything in service in the Allied armies. However Germany was forced to ask for an armistice before any were produced.

Given the desperate state of German manufacturing in 1918, even if the war had continued into 1919 it is doubtful that many Oberschliesen could hae been produced.
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