Little Willie Tank

The idea of an armoured tracked vehicle that would provide protection from machines gun fire was first discussed by army officers in 1914. Two of the officers, Colonel Ernest Swinton and Colonel Maurice Hankey, both became convinced that it was possible to develop a fighting vehicle that could play an important role in any future war. On the outbreak of the First World War Colonel Swinton was sent to the Western Front to write reports on the war. After observing early battles where machine-gunners were able to kill thousands of infantryman advancing towards enemy trenches, Swinton wrote that "petrol tractors on the caterpillar principle and armoured with hardened steel plates" would be able to counteract the machine-gunner. (1)

To maintain secrecy, Swinton coined the euphemism "tank", to describe the new weapon. However, he faced real problems from his boss, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State of War. His style of leadership was very authoritarian and was reluctant to experiment. Swinton later argued that after putting the idea to Kitchener without getting any support he hesitated to press too hard because he dreaded a direct order to drop it. (2)

Richard Hornsby & Sons also worked on the project and eventually produced the Killen-Strait Armoured Tractor. The tracks consisted of a continuous series of steel links, joined together with steel pins. In June 1915 the Killen-Strait was tested out in front of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George at Wormwood Scrubs. The machine successfully cut through barbed wire entanglements. Churchill became convinced that this new machine would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily. (3)

Colonel Ernest Swinton

Colonel Ernest Swinton persuaded the newly-formed Inventions Committee to spend money on the development of a tank and drew up specifications for this new machine. This included: (i) a top speed of 4 mph on flat ground; (ii) the capability of a sharp turn at top speed; (iii) a reversing capability; (iv) the ability to climb a 5-foot earth parapet; (v) the ability to cross a 8-foot gap; (vi) a vehicle that could house ten crew, two machine guns and a 2-pound gun. Winston Churchill wrote to H. H. Asquith, the prime minister about Swinton's ideas. (4)

In February 1915, Churchill arranged for the Admiralty to spend £70,000 on building an experimental "land ship" (Swinton insisted on calling them tanks). A month later Churchill agreed that eighteen prototypes should be built (six were to have wheels and twelve tracks). However, most of the major work was undertaken by the War Office and Ministry of Munitions. (5)

Little Willie

The first tank developed was given the nickname Little Willie. This prototype tank with its Daimler engine, had track frames 12 feet long, weighed 14 tons and could carry a crew of three, at speeds of just over three miles. The speed dropped to less than 2 mph over rough ground and most importantly of all, was unable to cross broad trenches. Although the performance was disappointing, Colonel Swinton remained convinced that when modified, the tank would enable the Allies to defeat the Central Powers. (6)

Little Willie
Little Willie

The production of Little Willie by Lieutenant Walter G. Wilson and William Tritton in the late summer of 1915 revealled several technical problems. The two men immediately began work on an improved tank. Mark I, nicknamed Mother, was much longer than the first tank they made. This kept the centre of gravity low and the extra length helped the tank grip the ground. Sponsons were also fitted to the sides to accommodate two naval 6-pound guns. In trials carried out in January 1916 the tank crossed a 9ft. wide trench with a 6ft. 6in. parapet and convinced watchers of its "obstacle-crossing ability". (7)

It was decided to demonstrate the new tank to Britain's political and military leaders. Under conditions of great secrecy, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State of War, David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, and Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were invited to Hatfield Park on 2nd February, 1916 to see Mark I in action. Lord Kitchener was unimpressed describing tanks as "mechanical toys" and asserting that "the war would never be won by such machines". Although without military experience, Lloyd George and McKenna saw their potential and placed an order for a 100 tanks. (8)

Primary Sources

(1) On 16th September 1916, Colonel Sir Maurice Hankey wrote in his diary about the tanks that were about to be used at the Battle of the Somme.

We drove on to see the 'caterpillars' of which we found about sixty-two, painted in grotesque colours. While we were there a German areoplane, flying at a great height, came overhead and the whole of the tanks took cover under trees or were covered with tarpaulins painted to resemble haystacks.

In the evening at dinner, I tackled both the chief of staff, and the sub-chief, about the 'caterpillars'. 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.

(2) Charles Repington, diary entry (21st September 1916)

Lunched with Lady Cunard, Winston Churchill, Lord and Lady Frederick Blackwood, and Lieutenant Hermann of the French War Office. We had a great discussion about the famous Tanks, which made their first appearance in the field in last Friday's battle. Winston said that though he had in his mind H. G. Wells's predictions about them, they really developed from the armoured motor car, which trench warfare had rendered useless. They were taken up by the Admiralty. He found that he had some money to spare, and he applied it to this purpose. To that extent the initiative and responsibility rested with him. Winston had wanted them to wait until there were something like a thousand Tanks, and then to win a great battle with them as a surprise, but, as Northcliffe said the other day, nothing keeps whether in journalism or in war.

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(1) Keith Grieves, Ernest Swinton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Ernest Dunlop Swinton, Over my Shoulder: The Autobiography of Major-General Sir Ernest D.Swinton (1951) page 121

(3) Martin Gilbert, First World War (1994) page 124

(4) Jason Richie, Weapons: Designing the Tools of War (1999) page 95

(5) Clive Ponting, Churchill (1994) page 211

(6) Keith Grieves, Ernest Swinton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(7) J. P. Harris, Men, Ideas and Tanks: British Military Thought and Armoured Forces (2015) page 39

(8) William Tritton, letter to Captain G. M. Williams (18th July, 1918)