Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fall of France, 7, Hardware: Queen of the Desert

So, the British army had played around with tanks large and small during the 1920s. Activity hit a low ebb during the Depression, and began to recover slightly after 1933. This was all immediately politicised by the journalism of one B. H. Liddell Hart, so I am going to skip over that for now. After all, this is a hardware story!

So let's go see what a hardware shop looks like.

This is the Vulcan Foundry, founded in 1832 and builder of many, many locomotives by 1937. In a rearmament boom-led recovery, you would think that that would be a good place to be. After all, the army needs self-propelled heavy metal, right? And locomotives were an old, old business for British industry. In the clover, right?

Wrong. The locomotive business had a severe overcapacity problem, and, in general, the companies that could be expected to give way were the international exporters. Locomotives are big, and big things can't really be made by "mass production." They're basically built up of parts made in essentially the same way that replacements are made and damaged parts repaired. This has the implicit consequence that they can be profitably built in any major railway work shop. Well, steam engines can. Modern electrics and diesel-electrics are a more complicated matter, because the manufacturer comes to be more about the engine than the heavy metal.

I throw this out because the interwar was a sad era for British locomotive builders. In some visions of how an industrial strategy might work, the British government had no business propping up these kinds of firms with sweet inside deals. Admittedly, Vulcan Foundry actually survived the interwar and the end of steam, but it is hard to say whether that might not be because they won a contract to build a tank for the army in 1937. On the other hand, Vulcan won large private sector contracts right up until the beginning of the global slump, and delivered more than 100 locomotives in 1933.

Now, about this contract, Postan, Hay and Scott suggest that this reflects inadequate British industrial capacity or something, and Correlli Barnett, as expected, takes the ball and runs with it. There are no tank builders in Britain, so the government has to give the contract to inexperienced locomotive builders who stumble about trying to make ultra-modern war machines in their Dickensian plants!

Put it another way: Vickers-associated historians complain about arms contracts not going to Vickers. So what's going on at the Vickers plant? After Vickers had the specification of the A10 changed right out from  under them into a "cruiser tank," they had nothing much to offer. Accordingly, the Vickers Drawing Office rushed into action, designing an "infantry tank" that only weighed 16 tons, so that it could run on the same automotive plant as the A10. It's hard to know what to make of this. The Valentine has a reputation for being a cramped and compact vehicle. And there is a reason for this. The problem with building a tank is that the  more armour you put on a box, the heavier it is, so that the smaller the box, the lighter will be the tank, and conversely, the larger the box, the much-more-heavy-than-otherwise will be the resulting tank. And the smaller the box. So if if the Valentine was going to be heavily armoured, yet light, it was not going to have much room inside the box for much of anything, whether that be guns, crew, or engine. What's more, the smaller the box, the harder it is to give it low ground pressure and good fording depth, leading to a distinct lack of operational manoevrability.

And yet the Russians,who knew their tanks, loved the Valentine. Thinking about this, the most obvious reason I can think of for this is that with that kind of weight, and the modest speed, it must have been a pretty sweet drive. That's a virtue that doesn't get a great deal of play, but it is real enough, and the fact that Vickers was an experienced tank builder suggests that it was intentional. Leading to the suspicion that the Valentine was to be pitched on the strength of that virtue, perhaps for "colonial" operations on bad Northwest Frontier roads?

But, rush as they might, Vickers only got the proposal to the War Office on 10 February 1938,and it was not approved for another year. In that time, Vickers completed deliveries of its two-person, heavily armoured "Matilda I," which was basically intended to be a mobile, offensive pill box, and became obsolete the moment that enemy armoured counterattack became possible. Meanwhile, the Mechanisation Board, after worrying the matter over for some time, approved a design for a "heavy infantry tank," and, yes, put it out to contract with Vulcan Foundry. The first two resulting "Matilda IIs" appeared in service in September, 1939. (Wikipedia says that the first Matilda II was built in 1937, but unless this was a mockup made in sheet steel, this is a little hard to see.) Later contracts were placed at 5 other locomotive builders, and just under 3000 Matilda IIs were built through 1943, at which point it was replaced in service by the Churchill tank, and in production by 450 "Austerity" locomotives needed to keep British industry working and for Europe after the invasion.

The extent of the production contracts suggest the raw productive capacity of the Vulcan Foundry. And there was certainly nothing else to distract them. The economic slump of 1938 refuted the idea that the armaments boom of 1936--7 was going to drive up inflation and cut exports by taking up engineering industry capacity. On the contrary, 1938 was a year of  rising unemployment, stagnant wages, falling steel consumption and outright misery in the north.  That said, armament procurement was not trivial. Engineering industry armaments production had risen from 43.8 million in 1936—7 to 76.7m in 1937—8 and 109.5 in 1938—9, compared with a total sector-wided value output of 473.6 million output in 1935. Armaments took up much of what would have otherwise been a severe drop in engineering sector productive capacity, and the editorial board of Engineering turned to worry about post-rearmament excess capacity. Which is all very well, but with war coming, perhaps not the most urgent of issues.

So, returning to the question of picking the wrong companies. Would everything have been fine if the British government had just given the Matilda II contract to Vickers, instead of sending a bag of money off to Third World Liverpool in hopes of staving off cannibalism? Well, no. The Valentine was approved for production in April 1939, and, as was often done in the last years before the war, was sent directly to production. An advanced batch was available for testing in May 1949, and the first regular production models appeared in the summer. That's pretty impressive compared with, say, the T-34, which was field-tested in a preliminary test vehicle in 1939, had a prototype in January 1940, and only appeared in a production type in September 1940, or, for that matter, the history of the Matilda II, which had its design finalised perhaps at the  "end of 1937" and was still only available in limited numbers in May 1940.

The thing is, though, that British industry delivered 67 infantry tanks prewar, 63 in the first quarter of the war, 46 in the second, and 121 in the third. So given that only 140 Matilda Is were ordered, divided into 60 vehicles in the first (enough for one regiment. Hmm....) and, presumably, another 80 in the next, simple math tells us that virtually the first Vulcan order for only 65 Matilda IIs,and some of the subsequent increase to 140 vehicles had been completed by June of 1940. Production and delivery to the front are distinct events, so the 21 that fought in France might have been the only ones that were really ready, but the country was able to spare two regiments worth by August, sending them off to the Middle East to become the  "Queen of the Desert."

True, people carp. And well they should. The nickname is awfully self-congratulatory, and the Matilda had its problems even before 1943, when it was functionally obsolete. There were odd design choices. It had two engines, for example, developed from an AEC bus power plant. Why? Could "Britain" not build sufficiently powerful diesels? On the contrary, British maritime diesel engine makers would have been perfectly happy to build one, as evidenced by Thorneycroft and Paxman sniffing around the business. The thing was that the Matilda was a 27 ton, heavily armoured monster. That the monsters would get even bigger was not obvious. The divided power plant was considered necessary to make it work at all, by giving separate power to each track. Given that, 190hp made it go quite adequately fast, and the Paxman 600hp diesel called, on first inspection, for some monstrous land-hulk. That Dr. Merritt had adequately solved the transmission problem was not obviously apparent to Walter Wilson's backers even in 1946, with the successful experience of the Cromwell and Churchill behind them, so it is no wonder that they were not thinking about a 30 ton tank tearing about the countryside at high speed. (To their credit, the Russians were.)

So I'm not seeing an issue around the engine. People also complain that the castings on the Matilda were too big and difficult to mass produce. Again, given that entire turrets were cast, I'm not sure I see the argument. If there is one thing that you go to locomotive builders for, it is experience in making big pieces of steel capable of taking heavy stresses! Anyway, "difficult" is not the same as "impossible," as a production total of 3000 machines tends to suggest.

What I am seeing an issue around is this: an order for 65 tanks? In 1938? And why weren't they all in France on 10/05/40? Frankly, talking about how Vulcan Foundry might not have been the right contractor seems to me to duck these more important issues.

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