Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Electric City, IV: Matadors, Trolley Busses and the End of the Age of Grass

Pictures first, taken from LaonaHistory.Com's* skidding and transporting page.

1. That's one horsey horse!

2. Decaying old narrow gauge railway beds are threaded all through North American woodlands even today. Cheap to make and cheap to operate, virtually none survive in operation, and yet there the trails are, traces of a world left behind.

3. Okay, fair enough, old-time people did some pretty incredible things with their Model Ts. Now try going downhill with this load behind.

4. Well, obviously, I'm recycling. But I have a point. Chances are, you've never heard of the AEC Matador, but it is a key technology of the  "the singularity in our past." Explanation below the fold.

This investigation began years ago, when I thought about a throwaway bit in a discussion of road logistics in Northwest Europe in the fall of 1944. It will get more attention next year, but, in brief, a Canadian veteran of the RCASC (the kind of veteran, in other words, that we rarely hear from) described a somewhat unsuccessful experimental conversion of a Diamond T tank transporter into a tractor-trailer.  

When I first read this, it was part of my dawning "Correlli Barnett is not all that" discovery. The famous Red Ball Express relied on the American army's standard 6x6 2.5 ton truck because American industry had failed to deliver enough 10 tonners for reasons that, as I say, I am going to wait 'till next year to discuss. But, as I said, I recalled it later. Specifically, when I was turning skids of milk crates around inside a drop trailer. It's a bit of an art, and I like doing it, but I'm not going to pretend that I don't sometimes test the walls of the trailers pretty harshly, and I think I can visualise what "somewhat unsuccessful," means. There's more going on in building those big trailers than just putting a box on wheels.

Okay, back up for a moment. Brett Holman sends me to David Stevenson's With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. (Amazon link.) It's not the book that I hoped it would be, lingering for page after loving page on the setup for the earthshaking denouement of 03/21/1918, the "Emperor of Battles," as I am choosing to mistranslate Kaiserschlacht, and then exploring its consequences. That's no complaint, though. I doubt that such a book is possible right now. There's just too much work to be done before we understand exactly how our world changed that day. At one point (36), Stevenson notes one crippling weakness in German plans: the army was short between two and three hundred horses per division.

That's the army of the country that includes Lower Saxony and a third of Poland, which absorbed most of the rest of Poland with the aid of its allies, the countries that own Pannonia and Anatolia. It's running out of horses. Total war has met its limit: there just aren't enough horses in Europe. Taking the world mobilisation of equine resources on the Allied side into account, there arguably aren't enough horses in the world.

This is why the British army mechanised in the 1930s. This is a point that I've dwelt upon before. Everybody has, I think: I have a pretty picture book in my collection that started as a catalogue of an Imperial War Museum photo exhibit. Against All Odds tells the story of the BEF in 1940. It's not the right story, mind you, about how none of the two-becoming three armoured divisions of the regular peacetime BEF managed to be in France on 10/05/40, but it is a story, divided up by branches of service, and Colonel D. Ronald of the Museum of War Transport tells the war story of the Army Service Corps beginning on p. 22. 

This one of those points where history fails to mind the gap. Looking back, I can without equivocation say that the RASC are the truck drivers of the army. But that's not what they would have said in the early 1930s, because the army had "only" 2000 trucks. The scare quotes signify, of course, that 2000 wasn't deemed a small number in 1932. Today when we talk logistics administration, the base assumption is that as we have money, so we have trucks. Trucks, and trailers, are unlimited commodities. An army should have millions of them, because they're cheap and ubiquitous. Not so, obviously, in 1932. The army actually hired "artillery tractors" from the private sector for manoeuvres, because "artillery tractors" were pretty much the same as farm tractors: big old things with iron wheels always blowing steam. 1932 was the year that the big companies finally decided that steam road transport wasn't worth pursuing. The future lay with petrol, perhaps, or oil engines. Who knew? The future was shady.

The War Office, however, needed an answer. So it laid down a standardised set of specifications for 8-hundredweight (cwt), 14-cwt, 30-cwt and 3-ton rigid body long bed transport trucks, all designed to take an extra axle off the driveshaft to convert peacetime/permanent road 2x4s into wartime cross-country 4x6s. (As is often the case, the war ended with the British wishing that they could have built their fleet entirely of all-wheel-drive 6x6s and Americans praising the virtues of the lower-cost 4x6s.) 

You notice what there's no mention of here? The tractor semi-trailer. It is not as if the thing hadn't been invented. I mean, that's how horses work (except for the fifth wheel thing, and there you've got the two-wheel cart  with axle, effectively the same thing), and, as usual, there is a patent troll** to take credit for inventing common sense.

If you click on that link, you'll be taken to some old-timers talking about the origins of the modern trucking industry. You will quickly get the impression that there were a great many improvised tractors hauling a great many kinds of loads across the roads of the United States in the 1930s. That would be your (slightly crazy) Model T-logging truck above. And then something happened, and they were everywhere.

"Something happened," indeed. You know what happened? World War II happened. In 1939, the RASC considered a 3 ton truck to be "big." 

Commons Production Isuzu 3 ton truck.

This is a 3 ton truck. This is what an independent bread or potato chips salesman pulls up in at the back of the store in the morning. Sort of a mobile office that you can deliver light loads in.

Colonel Ronald ends, just off the cuff, by noticing that the Royal Artillery needs "tractors," and there's this thing called a tank transporter that's needed to move tanks around, since chains chew up roads and need expensive maintenance. Back in 1932, Charles Cleaver began working on a "tractor" design for Hardy Motors and FWD to meet the army's emergent need for a vehicle to move the new AA guns around. It's going to be a big 4x4 with a 95hp diesel engine, designed from the start to haul heavy things on wheels at relatively low speeds on bad going. It's going to have features that a farmer would never put on an old-fashioned steam tractor, such as a cabin in the back for the gun crew, and others that no road transport company would consider worth the cost, such as a power winch. It will, however, be ideal for the army. 

It's hard to stress enough that the British Army is the only one that has this thought. Even the United States Army goes with the half-track, fitting a specialised military vehicle to an ostensibly specialised military role.

Seven years, bankruptcy, and a takeover later, the first AEC Matador prototype was delivered in January of 1939, and the first production model in November. Allied Equipment Corporation is best known for making busses for the London Underground, although, if you were a cynical man, you might instead mark it down as "best known" for having as chairman John Moore-Brabazon, First Baron Brabazon of Tara. Usually referred to as an aviation pioneer and sometimes as an "air member of parliament," Moore-Brabazon was a Tory peer, a member of the "Churchill-Eden clique," and one of the more embarrassing wartime victims of Tory-foot-in-mouthitis even before the disasters that were the Saro Princess and, worst of all, the Bristol Brabazon. But let us, just for a second, remember him instead as the man who organised the production of 9000 AEC Matadors over the course of World War II. It was a worthwhile contribution to victory, even if they didn't fly.

The Matador was a bit big for duties with the field artillery, so the Matador had a lesser sister, the  Morris C-8 Quad, a 70hp gas machine, about 10,000 made (all pictures hot-linked from Wikipedia: donate today!):

And it was a bit small for the tank trailers. For those purposes, the War Office ordered the Scammell Pioneer, 768 made:

At some point, well after an ultimate total of 6000 185 hp diesel or gasoline-powered Diamond Ts were ordered in the United States,

 Eighth Army reached country where hills were the rule rather than the exception, and it was noticed that, even in a diesel, 100hp was a bit low for hauling loads uphill. Under other circumstances, the RASC and Royal Artillery technical officer might have ended the war basking in the glow of the successful innovator. Only a small proportion of general cargo loads are being moved to the front on trailers being pulled by "artillery tractors," but vast number of men had been trained up to do logistics administration in this way. Even as the "Deuce and a Half" entered our social consciousness as "the" army truck, it was clear to the tractor drivers and diesel mechanics who kept the artillery moving that our social world was about to be transformed, and that one day people would be able to choose to have water delivered to their supermarkets prepackaged in 1.5 liter bottles, obviating the incredible inconvenience and drudgery of operating a tap. 

Unfortunately, our heroic Woolwich innovator is trapped behind a 7.2" growling uphill from Bologna in an underpowered Bedford while Jeeps zip by in a steady stream to the left, and he doesn't notice. The world is changing, and no-one is noticing. 


This is too beautiful not to share:

A Diamond T on the kind of western road that really tested veteran drivers. Made available for non-commercial use only by hankstrucks.com

*Speaking of old-timey, this might be a good place for an "autoplay" warning. Or it might be too late, but I feel like all the credit and linksharing I give to such an awesome collection of period photos is not enough.

**Caveat: August Charles Fruehauff died in 1939, well before the "tractor-trailer" he invented was actually a thing. His claim was pressed by his heirs, so it's not really fair to call Mr. Fruehauff, senior, a patent troll.


  1. There are people who have never heard of the AEC Matador!? Hasn't everyone interested in military history made a 1/72nd scale model of one at least once in their life?

    More seriously (and I've probably said this before here or somewhere else but can't quite remember), my impression is that WW1 was an awkward transitional phase when there wasn't enough of anything. Demand for transport in general went up to unprecedented levels, so they needed more horses and more motor vehicles and more light railways and more of anything they could get because no single form of transport could cope. Not enough horses in the world, but not enough mechanics either, which as you're always saying is the big bottleneck for mechanization. One advantage of horses is that they're self-repairing systems to a certain extent. At the highest end, veterinary medicine is much more complicated than fixing engines, but lots of minor horse ailments can be fixed by food and rest.

    Also have you seen this presentation by Rob Thompson? He says that the biggest problem in WW1 was not enough roads and not enough engineers to build them, so all that transport was wasted to a certain extent. (The cultural explanation is a bit simplistic, though.)

  2. I just checked my Weapons of World War II splatbook, complete with its Indigo markdown sticker. Jeep, Kuebelwagen, Schwimmwagen, Jimmy Four Deuce. . . No Matador.

    All I'm trying to say is that I think I might have figured out how the "semi revolution" snuck up on us. It's one of those technological transformations buried deep in World War II. Frankly, it's probably far more about the Diamond T and the American interstate than it is about the Royal Artillery. I'm just struck by this gap between 1939, when an internal combustion, wheeled "tractor" was an extraordinary solution to an extraordinary problem, and 2013, when it's just how we do things.

    Now, the road surfaces is an interesting one (which isn't to say that I'll have time to listen to the whole of the Robinson presentation before the weekend). We've had Brown on the BEF's LoC Area, and my inclusion of the narrow gauge logging railway is a nod in the direction of a technological path (briefly then) not taken.

    What's the big change? My interwar Army Quarterly writers pick out Marshal Bigeaud and the "oil" roads that he built into the Rif. Top-dressing a dirt road with a spray of bitumin keeps the dust down, amalgamates the soft, squishy stuff, and eventually creates a crust that's almost as smooth as a true asphalt road --almost bearable for a motorcycle rider, if you're some kind of young moron who tries to ride into treeplanting camps on a 650 Suzuki.

    Not that there's anyone like that around here.

    So there's an interwar innovation that became a big thing in the Eighth Army's LoC, the training ground for postwar civil engineers. Is this really a case of an easy invention yielding huge but concealed-from-casual-view fruits? Probably not: moving all that bitumin required trucks, and trucks required etc etc positive feedback cycle etc.

    So, in the end, I'm pulling it back to mechanics. You need them for everything, even novel road surfaces.

  3. http://www.army.mod.uk/news/25442.aspx

    So, here's the British army moving an 18" railway gun. Note that they lay a stretch of railway in the car park so that they can winch it onto the lorry, rather than building a road so that they can wheel it onto a train!

    and...how did that make you feel?

  4. You'd have to have one heck of a tyre to carry that thing on a normal roadbed. The things do exist, but I would suspect that laying a temporary rail road is a lot cheaper and more practical than running down one of those giant mine dump truck thingies.

    Also, I'm feeling tingly. In ways. Perhaps I should go have a lie-down.

    1. I find it weird that they didn't just send it by rail. Of course, it's probable that it's enormously incompatible with every loco and signalling system in the European rail network, but surely we didn't build a WW1 railway gun that didn't fit the French railways' loading-gauge?

    2. The usual answer when you ask that question is that break-of-bulk is too expensive. The rails don't go directly from the place you're coming from to the place that you're going to, so you need to shift the cargo.

      Roads go everywhere, and any road, anywhere, will bear any weight if you make the tyre big enough. Within limits that an 18" railway howitzer evidently doesn't exceed.

      Now I kind of wonder what the howitzer was supposed to be for. Smashing German fortresses in the 1919 offensive?

  5. Replies
    1. Okay, it's hotlinked advertising. But it's Bench Grass's kind of advertising.