Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fall of France, 4: The Armoured Division, III: (The Lack of) A Lincoln Connection

The city of Lincoln in Licolnshire. Or Lindsey, if you're in an antiquarian mode. Wikipedia.

Here's a town, on a hill, cut off by fens and marshes to the south and forests to north and west, connected by river to the sea. Saint Paulinus visited a "Praefectus Civilis" here in 629, and some archaeologists entertain misty fantasies of Roman British bishops gradually transitioning into Anglo-Saxon bishops. Here be fen-folk who resist the hegemony of the state and of statebuilding historical narratives alike.

I like the map because it shows the wet bits. They're not unimportant.

In 1840, two Lincoln families operating as "millwrights and General Smiths," had occasion to incorporate as Proctor and Burton. That's work down in the wet, having to do with surveying canals and bringing the water to mills that either used it for work or pumped it some place, so that it watered the grass, rather than liquefying the soil. Nowadays in these modern, "Victorian" times, one gets smiths involved, so as to replace the easily-worked but fast-decaying wood bits with pieces cast out of iron.

Was it the technology, or  the demand for capital, that got away from them? When George Ruston entered the picture in 1856, he had both recently completed a premium apprenticeship with a Sheffield cutlery maker, and was the son of a relatively wealthy farmer. (Twenty-eight labourers worked the 600 acres of the Ruston estate, I'm told by the fine company history website, unfortunately not terribly well internally linked. Here's Page 5.) The company would go on from its initial interests to work on tractors, cranes, and dredgelines as well as milling equipment. Power demands got more elaborate, and it interested itself in "oil" and "gas" engines at a period so early in the history of British engineering that one meets people who don't want to give Rudolf Diesel credit for the former, and do not distinguish between modern automobile-style internal combustion engines and the various other kinds of engines that use a gaseous cylinder charge.

There might be a story in the relationship between the Rustons and the old Proctors and Burtons if one dug that far down into the vast corporate archives generated by the subsequent mergers of almost too many similar Lincoln and Lincolnshire firms. Names like Hornsby, Barford, Fosters, Perkins, and Aveling flit into the picture, and even American partners such as Bucyrus and Caterpillar. Counting Lincoln agricultural machinery companies that didn't go into Rustons would just extend this list. I'm singling out Hornsby as particularly important here because they are the inventors of record of the "caterpillar tractor," transferring their patents to Caterpillar. I could also mention Fosters, which employed Sir William Tritton, one of the two men to receive payments over the tank from the postwar Committee on Inventions that settled up the Crown's debts to various inventors.

Still, it's the Hornsby connection that is most striking at first glance. With the Lincoln tractor export business already in full swing and doing fine with wheeled vehicles, the decision to branch out into caterpillar-tracked vehicles requires a little motivation given the difficulties early inventors had with the transmissions/steering of fixed wheeled vehicles. After all, this was the original concept of the locomotive, which only works because the road is shaped to turn under them! It turns out that George Hornsby developed and persevered with the concept because the War Office intimated that it was buying. According to the company history, its caterpillar tractor did a super awesome job of pulling siege artillery about the countryside, but an evil and reactionary artillerist, Stanley von Donop, nixed the idea. (Knowing that the Kaiser was about to strike within the next 10 years or so, the genetically disloyal von Donop was, of course, cutting off Britain from advancing down the armoured warfare development line. Too bad for Germany that he didn't gently suggest the concept to Berlin!)

It might be nice if someone were to actually publish Donop's report one of these days and clarify his actual thinking. The Japanese reduced Port Arthur by moving some coastal defence guns overland during the Russo-Japanese War, so everyone was thinking about such things at the time. And unlike many technical issues that obsess contemporaries only to be forgotten today, this one got a purchase on real history when the German offensive into Belgium was held up by the fortifications of Li├Ęge. Wikipedia is interesting on the subject (here), and links to the German gun  that needed ten railway wagons to reach the front and therefore wasn't terribly useful, and the one that they thus had to borrow from the Austro-Hungarians.

In reality, two of the road-mobile "Big Berthas" were ready in 1914, so it's more complicated. As far as I know, only Eric Dorn Brose has investigated the question. Right now, it appears that the engineers of the German army wanted to fight forward from the railhead, basically conducting operations by reducing the forts at the edge of the German-controlled net, while the cavalry entertained dreams of wild, sweeping operations across country. I submit that this is the old tug of war between "artillerie de campagne," and "artillerie des places forte" (such are the wonders of the Internet that I can even check my French genders via Google!) The cavalry wants to make free on the land, and so its guns must eat grass. The engineers, meanwhile, want to alter the earth to the purposes of war, and therefore build their guns in place, requiring, therefore, a more deliberate approach to the offensive.

So the salient point here is that Lincoln-area agricultural machinery makers emerged as an important node within the network that produced the first tanks. Many of Britain's WWI tanks were made there, at Fosters. In the Second War, tanks were also made in Lincoln, at Ruston. In small numbers, to other designs, because the Lincoln area was not recruited into tank building during the 1930s. The factories didn't go unused.
Large Oil Engine Test Bay, 1940. From Ray Hooley's Ruston-Hornsby History Site.
But they pretty much just made boring stuff that's only important, and which no WWII enthusiast will ever talk about here. This is only an interesting observation insofar as the official historian claimed that tank production was delayed during rearmament because of the need to recruit inexperienced firms into the business. I've suggested before that that talking point might be an attempt to shift blame for a specific production shortfall onto the Vulcan Foundry, but I'm not going to go too far out on a limb there. What I am going to point out is that you have basically an entire industry that ought to be ready to leap into the business of tanks, and which got no contracts in the late 30s. That might be because the Premier didn't want to interfere with normal business, which would be a telling commentary on the presumptive importance of what the Lincolnshire industry was doing. But, as it happens, we haven't looked at who did get the contract, and what it might all mean.

Two points to draw together here. First, on 10 December 1936, Edward VIII abdicated his thrones to be with the woman he loved. Aww....

Second, there is Richard Perren's insightful explanation for the fact that in the ten years before WWII, British agricultural employment fell from 729,000 to 601,000, and horses from 2 million to 200,000, while the number of tractors in use rose from only 15,000 in 1925 to 40,000 in 1938. (Agriculture in Depression, 1870-1940, a volume in the New Studies in Economic and Social History series [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995]: 42--3, 49-50.)

The explanation? British agriculture was a metropolitan agriculture, focussing on high-value added goods such as dairy. The soft-bottomed land that would have called out for mighty traction engines with innovative drives was all  long since buried under a thick, tough layer of fodder grass that you could land a plane on. (And if that was what you chose to do with it, chances are that a Ransome & Rapier lawnmower would cut it for you, and the Air Ministry would make a penny or two selling it as fodder.)

 And so visions of massive machines making free on the land were reserved to colonial parts, and notions of chain-tracked "locomotives" pulling trains of supplies across the muskeg to Dawson City. 

We know, of course, that that's not how it worked out, that Caterpillar went on to build a global business. That being said, though, tracked vehicles aren't much used for farming. The big sales are in construction, creating the massive buildings with their underground parking, and the separated grade expressways and vast parking lots of our modern automotive infrastructure. That business was just getting under way in the prewar years. Have I mentioned that someone-else-but-me should really investigate "Force X," Hore-Belisha's special commando of heavy construction machinery operators attached to the Royal Engineers in 1940?

As I've already suggested, there was a car-centred vision of the future within the British military establishment in the late 1930s. It was just going very, very wrong. Looking back and reading the memoirs of the participants, it's like no-one, no-one at all, agreed with Lieutenant-Colonel Shaw's view that an army of light tanks would lead Britain forward into a middle-class, quasi-Fascist future; but, somehow, the army ended up buying 1000 of these things in four years. Defeat is still an orphan.

Which brings me back to my first point, which is that someone did try an alternative. Vickers gave the War Office this, and then this, probably repossessed from the circus, and the reason that the one British army tank brigade in France on 10/05 had only two battalions. And then came this.

Oh, so anodyne, the Wikipedia article; a bunch of observers went to the Red Army manoeuvres in the fall of 1936 and saw a Russian tank based on the designs of American Walter Christie on display. So impressed they were that the came back to Britain and just happened to suggest to the War Office that maybe it should order some of its own. And, they threw in, why don't you power it with the old Liberty engine, a WWI problem-in-search-of-a-solution. Oh, and we'll name the private consortium building it (because for some unexplained reason the contract isn't going to Vickers, or, for that matter, a Lincoln firm) the "Nuffield Organisation."

Now, I don't want to give Wikipedia grief here. That's a reproduction of Wikipedia's link up there, and if you follow enough links through the pages of Wikipedia, the closed book will surely fall open. We're talking about William Morris, the "Ford of Britain," the  glory hound and master of publicity who bestrode interwar Britain like a colossus, thanks to an often too-apparent scaffolding of his own making, assembled and maintained by the newspaper publishers and politicians that he bought or sucked up to, as occasion merited.

Here's Henry Luce's organ on the subject of one time when Mr. Morris was not inclined to suck up. On this occasion, the Air Ministry decided not to let what would soon become the "Nuffield Organisation" manufacture complete aeroengines in its own factory. Luce's copy-boy (or girl) seems to be in the tank here. And no wonder, as Luce and Morris were men of a kind. What a disaster this "Shadow Scheme" turned out to be! What egg on the face of the ministry when Nuffield turned out to know more about making engines than the organisation put together by the Air Inspectorate Branch. (Er, wait one, here.)

The ministry will sure fall over such nonsense! Or, no, perhaps it won't, because after this spectacular bit of bomb-throwing, Lord Nuffield suddenly disappeared from the headlines, just in time for the long-brewing abdication crisis to burst onto the scene. Just as, a few months later, would the Nuffield-built Cruiser, Mark 3, A13. From one perspective (though not that of the operators), a brilliant combination of new components. From another, a hastily assembled design put together from already available technology, suited for production by a manufacturer rather hastily bought off with a large War Office contract.

It turns out that the automotive world that's coming does have the power to dictate what tanks will look like.

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