Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Who Was First? (Not "Who's on first...")

An early model British Mark I "male" tank, named C-15, near Thiepval, 25 September 1916. The tank is probably in reserve for the Battle of Thiepval Ridge which began on 26 September. The tank is fitted with the wire "grenade shield" and steering tail, both features discarded in the next models. (Source)
When you mention World War I tanks to someone - well, someone who is somewhat familiar with both topics - most would have that opening photo in mind, the classic rhomboid-shaped British tank. Because after all, the British invented the tank, right?

Or did they?

From my research, it seems that the British were first to deploy an operational tank, which looked a lot like the one in that opening photo. But the idea of the tank has been around for a long time. The first to envision the tank as a weapon of war, who else but Leonardo da Vinci, a fellow who was born way too early. Now two army officers had an idea for the tank before one was ever fielded. The first guy was an Austrian. An army officer by the name of Gunther Adolf Burstyn. This fellow -

Oberleutnant Burstyn
In 1911 he designed and patented his idea for a vehicle which ran on tracks, had a rotating turret, and was armored. For the time, it looked very modern. Far more modern that the majority of tanks which saw action in World War I. He called it the Motorgeschütz, literally "motor gun." While the good lieutenant was an Austrian, he did receive a German patent (252,218) in February of 1912, according to the Army Ordnance Journal VOL. Ill Copyright 1922 WASHINGTON, D. C, JULY-AUGUST, 1922, bottom of page 36 -
Credit for the invention of the armored caterpillar "tank" as an instrument of warfare is denied to the British and conceded to the Teutons by the United States Patent Office. If the Patent Office record is correct it adds one more to the mistakes attributed to the Germans in their conduct of the war, for the shock the Germans got when the British tanks appeared in battle did not come until five years after a German patent had been taken out on a similar death-dealing machine. "Records of the Patent Office," says a Patent Office statement, "showed that Gunter Burstyn, of Austria, was granted a German patent on a caterpillar tank on February 22, 1912, which is practically a duplicate of the English type used in their offensive during 1917 and 1918.
"Drawings of this German tank reveal the fact that it was so constructed as to crawl over trenches, plow through wire entanglements and perform all the other feats that made the English tank so successful in the War. "Having issued a patent upon an armored tank of the caterpillar type in 1912, it is puzzling to understand why the German Imperial Government did not make use of it during the war, instead of allowing the English to surprise them with this new engine of destruction. (From the New York Times, April 23, 1923.)
Burstyn's Motorgeschütz
The Wikipedia entry for Oberleutnant Burstyn says he was denied a patent, this source (auf Deutsch) says he did get a patent. As did the U.S. Patent office (there was also an Austrian Patent).

The distinction, I think, is that neither the Austro-Hungarian Army, nor the German Army wanted it, their generals being "experts" in their chosen field of endeavor and how dare you question them? (Note, it is an accepted historical fact that all generals, yes, admirals too, are always preparing for the last war. To be fair, it's all they know.)

While it was cool looking, and modern, and probably would have been a war winner, the big shots said, "No." So it was kind of interesting that they went bat-shit crazy when the British attacked them with tanks during the war. (Always take what the experts say with a grain of salt, they don't know everything, no one does.)

The second guy who envisioned the need for some sort of vehicle which was protected, packed a punch, and could cross all sorts of terrain, was the guy in the next picture, a French general by the name of Estienne. The French know him as "father of the tank," which in French is "Père des Chars." (What, did you think I could miss the chance to use the language of some of my ancestors in a post?)

Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne
This was his baby -

The Renault FT, the first "modern" tank to enter production.
Grandpa of the Sarge drove one of these!
Looks more modern than that British monster up top, neh?

Colonel (at the time) Estienne predicted that -
"Victory in this war will belong to the belligerent who is the first to put a cannon on a vehicle capable of moving on all kinds of terrain." — Colonel Jean Baptiste Estienne, 24 August 1914.
But the British got them into the field first, a favorite fellow of mine really pushed the concept -
When Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, learned of the armoured tractor idea, he reignited investigation of the idea of using the Holt tractor. The Royal Navy and the Landship Committee (established on 20 February 1915), at last agreed to sponsor experiments and tests of armoured tractors as a type of "land ship". In March, Churchill ordered the building of 18 experimental landships using Diplock pedrails (an idea promoted by Murray Sueter), and six using large wheels (the idea of T.G. Hetherington). Construction however failed to move forward, as the wheels seemed impractical after a wooden mock-up was realized: the wheels were initially planned to be 40-feet in diameter, but turned out to be still too big and too fragile at 15-feet. The pedrails also met with industrial problems, and the system was deemed too large, too complicated and under-powered. (Source)
Now many folks have been taught that the first use of tanks was at the Battle of Cambrai in the fall of 1917, but in reality that was the first large scale attack by tanks and it was successful, breaking through the German lines. Unfortunately the British intended to use horse cavalry to follow up on the breakthrough (WWI tanks were very slow, much slower than horse cavalry). Due to the primitive communications of the time, the horse soldiers didn't get the word until it was too late to advance. As many of the tanks had by then broken down, the Germans patched the holes in their line before things got out of hand.

But that was after the actual first use of tanks in combat at the Somme in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September of 1916. Things went well at first, but many of the tanks broke down and there just weren't enough of them. For what it's worth, the French advised the British to wait until they had more tanks. Perhaps les Anglais should have listened to their French allies. (If the French had won at Waterloo, maybe they would have!)

So there's a brief look at who was first with fielding the tank. The Germans did have a tank in WWI, it was fairly effective, but with quality steel at a premium they only built about twenty of them. They took the tank more seriously in the Second World War, as we all know.

German A7V tank at Roye on March 21, 1918.
Big sucker innit?
So some of you are no doubt asking, "So Sarge, tanks, again? I thought you were in the Air Force dude?"

Why yes, yes I was. But I like tanks, rather a lot really. But I've also been watching a four part series on the tank over at Netflix (I know Beans, I know, but I don't let politics stand in the way of entertainment and education) called Age of Tanks. The first episode covered WWI, they mentioned both Burstyn and Estienne, two guys I'd never heard of before that, so that was educational.

The second episode which covered WWII wasn't quite as good, probably because there were a crap ton of tank types in that war. A lot of German tanks were mentioned, probably because they really put the tank to good use, but they didn't mention the single best German tank of the war, the Panther (PzKw V). Sure the Tigers were hyped as was the T-34, the Sherman (which the narrator kept referring to, rather annoyingly, as the "U.S. American Sherman"), but no British tanks were mentioned. None at all that I can recall.

Sure, a lot of the British tanks in WWII sucked, but hey, the tanks of the 8th Army defeated Field Marshal Rommel (Mr. Panzer hisself) in North Africa, that's gotta count for something, right?

Anyhoo, I'll report back when I watch the last two episodes. (By the way, the WWII episode ended with breathless mentions of the tank being used against civilians, and why not, they used horse cavalry against civilians in Russia, right?)

Now let me close with this, what do the various big nations call what is officially an armored fighting vehicle, or main battle tank?

Well, the Brits coined the term "tank" because the early ones looked like big water tanks, and calling them "land ships" might give away what they were going to be used for, so tank became the name. (Oddly enough, in Desert Storm, the British called their tanks, "panzers," see below.)

Now we had the Austrian Motorgeschütz, motor-gun, the Germans call them Panzerkampfwagen, armored fighting vehicles, the Russians call them "танки," (yup, tanks), and the French refer to them as chars. which is usually translated as "tank," but literally is translated as "chariots." Romantic folk those French. (I kinda like the name to be honest.)

Oh, that "panzers" thing? It's what the Germans usually call their tanks, short for that whole Panzerkampfwagen thing. So British tankers in the desert (hearkening back to their grandfathers in 8th Army no doubt) called their tanks "panzers." Sort of akin to Patton's "Rommel you magnificent bastard, I read your book!*" So perhaps the Brits were saying, in a rather British way, "Rommel, you cheeky bastard, we stole your word for tank!"

Or something.

* Probably apocryphal but a great scene in a great movie, the line delivered by a great actor as well. Also, ever the historical pedant, Rommel's book was shown in the movie as Tank Attacks, but in reality Rommel's book was Infanterie greift an, Infantry Attacks. But why confuse the audience with facts?


  1. Thanks for passing along these bits of info, always like when my knowledge base expands. And when armor is involved well, then woohoo! I get a kick when I hear on TV or a movie comes out with " The German Panzer tank........" So..... German tank tank huh? (insert Homer Simpson -Duoh! here). Again Sarge, tanks!

    1. Yup, panzer tank, a pet peeve of mine. Right up there with Mount Fujiyama.

    2. Sarge, posting from Bayou Renaissance Man today on last Japanese F4 squadron being phased out later this year.

    3. Yup, saw that. Hard to believe the old girl has been in service this long.

      That's what I call a good design!

    4. Well, the Mig-21 is still flying, and the Israelis have managed to upgrade the electronics and such to next-gen standards. Nothing wrong with either platform.

      Can you imagine an F-105 with fly-by-wire and all the modern enhancements? Damned Congress!

    5. Well yeah, what else is new?


  2. (Places tongue in cheek) - have you ever watched Girls und Panzer?

    1. No, but I have a friend who is a big fan.

      Let's just say, I'm aware of the series.

  3. Well, a whole host of writers and designers had made mention of land-ships and such, just by 1914 the horsepower to weight ratio was actually in favor of a successful armored tracked land vehicle. Internal Combustion powered Armored cars (with and without turrets, armed with machine guns) having been out and in production since at least 1898, by French, British and German/Austrian concerns, but the ground conditions were not favorable for wheeled under-powered vehicles. So the idea of moving armored vehicles was there, just... not quite there yet. Like arming an aircraft successfully, just needed a slight jump on the old technology scale. A very slight nudge, actually.

    As to Montgomery and the Brits in North Africa, well, their tanks were okay-ish, good against the Italian jobs, but it wasn't until the advent of the American M-3 Light and the M-3 Medium (in both the US "Lee" and the more British "Grant" versions (Lee had radio in hull - as seen in the movie "Sahara" while Grant had an enlarged upper turret with the radio in the turret) and, later, the early M-4 Medium, that British forces had parity and then superiority over most of what Rommel and the Desert Afrika Korps were fielding. Since really the best Rommel had at the time was the PzKfg III with the long 50mm, the intro of the US 37mm high velocity and the 75mm medium cannon was quite a shock to Jerry, along with the advent of the 6 lb Anti-Tank gun by Britain. Mostly good old American know-how, that was fresh, and not as prone to breakdown as the British stuff. And I can go on, and on, and on... but I won't. Except to say, Hwack-Ptoie on Montgomery.

    Tanks were also used by the US, under the command of Patton, to attack US citizens during the Bonus Marches. Of course, none of it would have happened if Dug-out Doug hadn't ordered the attack... Not one of our finest moments as a nation. Not at all.

    1. I am most assuredly NOT a fan of Dugout Doug.

      Yes, armored cars were wandering around long before the tank. Lots of writers talked about them, but getting the thing into the field is key. I wonder what would have happened had the Austro-Hungarians produced Burstyn's design. Or (shudder) the Germans.

    2. If they had wide tires and a tad bit more horsepower, armored cars woulda made much more impact. As it is, they were good for scouting and area security in the less demolished areas.

    3. Germans had a lot of armored cars, they were useful.

      Until they met anti-tank guns, or tanks, or tank destroyers. Then they were useful for marking the front lines, as they burned.

      Seriously though, most weapon systems are a trade off, armored cars are cheaper than tanks. But more protection requires more horsepower, and better cross-country mobility. It all boils down to what you can afford and what you need it for.

    4. ACs work great for scouting roles and behind the lines support, along with lower intensity conflicts and lightning raids. They don't have the staying power of tracked vehicles.

      Pretty much light tracked armor also went away after WWII. Except in low intensity conflicts, lighting raids, scouting roles and behind the line support where they competed with ACs.

    5. Yup, if it's too light and strays near the front line, it dies.

      Rather like an LCS I would imagine.

    6. I am adding this comment late, since you say you will still see it. Beans is right: the British finally beat the Afrika Korps using American tanks. The Brits brought some good designs late in the war, but their early tanks, according to some of their own tankers, were underpowered, unreliable nightmares. I can't remember where I read it, but I recall a British officer's comment about the end of one North African battle ( I think maybe Alam-el-Halfa ) that if they had had 100 Shermans in reserve Rommel would never have made it back to his defensive position. The Sherman was a good tank in 1942. Two years later, with few upgrades, it was as outdated as an F4F or a Spitfire Mk2 would have been in France.

    7. Yes, a lot of British tanks were crap. I'm still trying to get my head around the Sherman's usefulness. Good tank? Bad tank? Well, Colonel Hackworth liked it, so that's something. As for German tanks, most of the later ones were cranky and over engineered. Lots of data out there. I tend to go with results and what the men who fought im them say. More on that later I think.

      You know what they say LoFan John, better late than never!

  4. After the War, the Wisconsin North woods were full of the US built version of the Renault FT. They were bought surplus, and used as skidders,in the logging camps. Alas, they were turned on for scrap during WWII.

    1. After WWII there were a few construction/demolition companies that used gun-less tanks as cheap versions of bulldozers. But then the surplus bulldozers came on the market and the bottom fell out of the surplus tank market (dozers being much easier to work on than tanks, dontcha know?)

    2. Yes, tanks tend to be rather cramped and not much good for anything other than being a tank.

  5. to add a bit of my own country history with tanks...
    1.immediately after regaining independence some 120 Renault FT were bought form France, and they took serious action durng 1919-1921 war with Soviet Russia...
    2.Polish word for tank is "czolg" which is derived from "czolgac sie" (to crawl), so closest would be crawler... the 1930s some 600 tankettes were manufactured in Poland, along with some 100 7tp tanks based off the Vickers 6 ton
    4.while tankettes were mostly obsolete by 1939, few of them have been upgunned with 20mm autocannon and gave some nasty surprises to Germans, and so did 7tp armed with excellent (for 39, again) 37mm at gun licensec by Bofors
    5.after the end of the 1939 defensive war, armored forces were reconstructed in France...
    6,and again in 1940 in the UK after another evacuation
    7.most important ww2 Polish armored unit, the 1st Armored Div., took vital part in battle of Normandy, spearheading final Montgomery's push beyond Caen, and sealing the Falaise gap by meeting with US soldiers driving from south - fighting at a times in isolated encirclement "cicle the wagons style" and fighting off retreating Germans AND II Panzer SS corps returning to fray to hel comrades get out of "kessel"
    8, uncontented to do that 1st Armored got to liberate Dutch city of Breda, and ended tyhe war riding into wilhelmnshaven, the prime base of German navy...
    9,meanwhile in Soviet Union another Polish army was formed, controlled by Soviets. (following first such army which took opportunity to escape to British in Persia, and later ended up capturing monte Cassino) It obviously featured T-34s, and they have been most famous on that front for saving bridgehead on Vistula in 1944 from counterattack by Panzer/Fallschirmjaeger division "Hermann Goering"
    10,after the war Soviet-controlled Poland had been second most numerous armored force in the Warsaw Pact and at a times had more tanks then UK and France combined, though quality did lag behind, being mostly t-55 variety
    11.on a few occassions tanks were sused to quell workers protests during communist times
    12,and nowadays Poland is amongst most potent NATO armored forces, keeping again more tanks than UK and France combined, and more novel, more than Germans themselves. Foremost amongst modern Polish armor are ex-German Leopards 2 although t-72s and local Polish modernization variant with ERA and fre control upgrades called PT-91 still feature heavlty in the force.

    1. Awesome stuff Paweł! I can always count on you to give us the good stuff from Poland.

    2. And, unlike Germany, Poland's Leopards actually work!

      Nothing wrong with up-electronic-ed T-72s. We were fortunate to only meet 'chimp' versions of Soviet armor. But both Red China and the later Russian stuff seems capable enough.

    3. Maintenance, the Polish government understands, but when you're only looking to be a satrapy in the new Caliphate (looking at you Merkel) why spend money on defense?

  6. I've learned a lot watching these tank chats--

    1. Ah wonderful, another thing to fill the hours.

      (Seriously, thanks for the link! Love the Tank Museum.)

  7. Not tank related, but this is up your alley:

    Assuming you haven’t seen it already, that is. But you probably have, unless you haven’t, and in that case you should check it out?

    1. Nice video!

      I miss the sound of those engines. Actually kinda miss the smell of jet fuel as well.

    2. I find that the smell of diesel busses reminds me of jet exhaust. Kind of like Suboxone used to treat opioid addiction. Almost good enough...

  8. I am late AGAIN for this party, but this little gem was on the wire yesterday and today and is very relevant to the tank discussion - many of you may have seen the video of the tank duel on cologne between Smoyer's Pershing and a Panther.

    here's another article about Mr. Smoyer -

    and finally a recent book about his encounter, Spearhead -

  9. Hey AFSarge;

    Many thanks for the article, I didn't know that the Austrians had a design that was better than the Mark I the Brits used, but the Brits had the distinction of having many of them so they got the "honors" I suppose. Keep on pushing the Tank stuff,


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)