Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fall of France, IV: The Armoured Division, IV: Covenanter? Really?

Two things about the Tank, Cruiser, A13, Mark III. First, it was the first British cruiser tank to get a name: Covenanter. Appropriately militant, an old British military tradition (optional cheese topping); and, lined up with "Cromwell," "Crusader," and "Churchill," good "triangulation," as the cool kids are saying. If you start with a Conservative ministry, you want to be making gestures towards the left. (I'll ignore the Cavalier. Everyone else does.)  This would ground zero of the conflation of the rise of evangelical Protestantism, science and engineering, old Liberalism, and the infantry arm as indices of progress.  Not to beat that drum too often, but I'm not entirely convinced. And it is, I'm just saying, probably the wrong way to go with a cruiser tank.

Second, the Covenanter is another of those British tanks to get a reputation as "the worst tank ever made." (Apologies to other worthy candidates.) Leading me to think that  some people don't know what that word means.

So: context. On 10 May, 1940, the Germans crossed the border into the Low Countries, using the maximum number of routes to debouch into France, making  maximum use of their superior weight. (Setting aside the somewhat rubbishy arguments that the Germans didn't outnumber the Allies.) Now the French army would have to advance itself if it wished to occupy strong forward defensive positions.

This posed the threat of disaster in encounter battle. Let's leave the idea of a German way of war that made them inherently superior in "manoeuvre war" aside. I distrust it. I think that it leads to bad places. I think that it might be indefensible within the framework of the human sciences, without having done a very good job of articulating why that might be so. (In a more intuitive way, I'll point to many, many  examples of large corporations that flattered themselves with their inherent superiority of manoeuvre.) The French problem may be as simple as that they never had as many  horses as the Germans, or that infantry selected from a larger manpower pool could march harder. Or both. And then there's air superiority.
The currently(?) fashionable theory is that you avoid disaster in the encounter battle by preventing the enemy from getting inside your decision cycle. More practically, there's that "get there the first with the most" thing that comes back to speed across land. If the enemy army can move faster than you, that can really hurt. And if the solution has to be to slow the enemy down, you can only rely on strong strong barriers where they exist. (That's why  one of my teachers links French fortress building to French statebuilding.) Otherwise, you have to win the cavalry fight, and that would be what you call your Catch-22.

Eastern Belgium offers one of these problems. There are the Dyle and Meuse/Maass, partially-canalised rivers that make a great defensive position. And between them, there's a twenty mile gap. This "Gembloux Gap" is where the French cavalry have to beat the Germans. And that's actually what happened. Unfortunately, the Germans broke through in the south, and it was all in vain.

Meanwhile, the British Expeditionary Force took up positions on the Dyle. Why had they taken this less sensitive area of front when the French evidently needed a stronger force in the Ardennes? Because the British lacked cavalry cover, and by a frustratingly small temporal margin. First Armoured Division began its deployment only nine days after the outbreak of war.

Nine days that spelled the doom of 50 million people. Why the delay? My answer is that it comes down to manpower policy. But, today I'm  interested in the excuse, because the excuse may be presumed to obscuring historical inquiry. The excuse is materiel, and, specifically, that the British army lacked enough "cruiser tanks." The claim is that a few hundred (good) tanks represented a large enough industrial burden that it's reasonable that a country with a navy currently in the midst of carrying through a double 1937/8 naval programme that included 5 battleships and four aircraft carriers.

 Which is bollocks. But we have the world's worst tank as an illustration that it was hard. If I'm recalling the official history properly, a very good historian may even have given this claim colour. And since, for some reason,  a book published by HMSO in 1964 is not on Google Books, I get to use Michael Postain as my strawman here! (The hell, people?) Fortunately, the days when you just had to take the official historian at his word are gone. Nerds like this stuff, and nerds can use the Internet.

Just to boil it down, the specification for a physically compact 20 ton tank running on 350hp, armed with a 2 pounder gun, using the Christie suspension, and reasonably competitive armour, was issued 2/02/39, and the London, Midland & Scottish Railway was asked to take it in hand. This is where, according to the source of all historiographic evil, it all goes wrong. It's crazy asking one of the largest heavy engineering firms in Britain to design and build a tank.  Because it's a railway! On 17/04/39, an order was placed for a mockup vehicle and 100 production machines, without a prototyping stage, because of the imminence of conflict. This meant that production models would have all sorts of problems that would have to be fixed in post-production and incorporated in larger production. (A special fitting for a compass right next to some magnetic catches would be an example of something that prototype field trials are supposed to find.) A crazy expedient that no modern business would adopt, to be sure.

The pilot model arrived at the Mechanised Warfare Experimental Establishment on 23/05/40, and passed, although the date makes me a little suspicious. Were the staff there really on their game in the third week of May, 1940? Certainly the vehicle they saw had aluminum roadwheels and a Wilson transmission, courtesy of Self-Changing Gears. The former ought to have been a pretty obvious red flag given the shortage of strategic alloys, and the latter evidently proved an issue, as well.
Now, replacing dished aluminum wheels with steel ones is going to add some weight. It's the transmission that might have been the real issue. It's not clear to me that a clutchless system was the right solution for a tank, which is going to end up doing a lot of stop-and-go, but I'm no expert. Besides that, replacing it meant  reducing the power available to the engine fan. The Covenanter had legendary overheating problems that make its reported long engine life all the more remarkable. (1000 hours between engine changes, compared to 600 for the Liberty-equipped Crusader and 800--1000 for the American Grant.) That being said, we don't know what operational issues that temperature needle might have caused. And while other engineering decisions might have contributed to the overheating, changing the engine transmission certainly didn't help.

However, by this time, serial production was under way, and the first of almost 1800 Covenanters began to arrive in the field in late 1940. As I suggested in my last posting, there were other powers than fighting that might have been glad to be able to build 1800 tanks, even mediocre ones, in three plants in somewhere just over three years from the issuing of the specification to delivery of the last machine. The Covenanter might have been too late for France but this is pretty fast work. By way of comparison, the earliest design work leading to the T-34 occurred in 1934; a prototype was delivered in 01/1940, the first production tank was delivered in 9/40. And as for those ever-superior Germans, two designs to the Pzkpfw V Panther requirement were submitted in 01/42, with approval in 05/42, first prototype in 09/42, and first production  rather vaguely given as 01/43.

If, due to the very rapid production process, the first production Covenanters were unreliable and difficult to operate, that would hardly have mattered had they been available in time for the Battle of France, and if a shortage of tanks was what was preventing 1st (and, for that matter, 2nd) Armoured Division from going to the front. The excuse of urgency isn't necessarily vitiated by the rapid fall of France, either. There was a potential military crisis in the spring of 1941, as well; a German invasion of Britain.

But that's not the takeaway I want to get to here. I've talked about the design process, the cooling problems, and the production schedule, but none of this would have been possible without the engine. And the engine has been the bugaboo here. Supposedly, Nuffield bought the Liberty engine because there was nothing else suitable in Britain at the time. Also supposedly, the Matilda was limited by its engine. One hears, inaccurately, as it happens, (Professor Strawman again, I'm afraid) that Britain couldn't produce a large, high-speed diesel like the one in the T-34.

In the Covenanter's case, though, we have a truly bizarre sight. The Army wanted a new tank engine that met its design preference (a flat configuration to reduce hull height). So it went to the contractor that had supplied its previous tank engines, and got a new, apparently quite reliable, engine that delivered the requisite horsepower. In short, this is a story of industry meeting demands with no fuss whatsoever. It's not the engine designer's fault that the concept of a compact, low-profile, 20 tonne tank was obsolete in the face of a general guns-and-armour race that was about to push standard size up to 30 tonnes. This is why I sense a huge anomaly in Nuffield's decision to go with the Liberty. If I hadn't already shot my bolt on this one, I would now be proposing a political motivation for the choice.

And maybe it is because I have a strange sense of humour that I find a measure of poetry in the fact that Henry Meadows had his plant in Wolverhampton.Because of Adrian Mole, an outstanding example of the humour to be found in failure, which is why writers create failed characters. That being said, I'm surely not the only person who would prefer it if Susan Townshend would stop making Adrian fail.

Historians, for their part, have a perfect right to discover and report failure. There's certainly no shortage to be found, even in the history of British industry in the Second World War. It's when they contrive failure that we have a problem. I understand the motivation. Failure is funny. Who doesn't want to write funny? It's only that we need to keep history in mind, too. manpower training.

1 comment:

  1. Thinking about Leyland Motors and their part in Gamelin's downfall, and specifically the spat between them and R-R, I wonder what your take on Rover's bungling of the jet job and the eventual handshake deal to give it to R-R is? I presume Whittle's account is as ragingly partisan and embittered (by a bloke who combined the roles of test pilot, chief designer, tech startup entrepreneur, and chippy working-class autodidact! that's enough ego to kill an entire platoon of Lady Gaga!) as it sounds.

    But it's also hard to dodge his point that R-R put in orders of magnitude more hours of development running on the jets than Rover, Vauxhall, and British Thomson-Houston totalled up, and therefore succeeded in debugging the PowerJets designs where neither the West Midlands automakers or Whittle himself did.

    It's not as if Leyland or Rover were direct competitors of Rolls, and it's not obvious why they should refuse to mass produce an R-R tank engine when they did, later, in fact successfully produce R-R tank engines and the payoff for giving Stanley Hooker the jet project (render to Caesar, etc) was the handover of two R-R shadow factories making...tank engines.

    I mean, it's almost as if the East Midlands/northerners at R-R and the Brummies at Rover, Leyland etc just didn't get on and that's no kind of explanation.