How the tank was born

Autor: Marty / marty 🕔︎︎ 👁︎ 44.583

Only with a tank for short distances

Warfare has been with mankind since time immemorial. And they've evolved with it. The twentieth century marked a huge turning point. Man invented the armoured tracked vehicle and with its help swept away all previous conventions of warfare. Let us now go back to the very beginning of it all and trace, step by step, the development of ground technology in the world and in this country.

"The present war has swept away all previous military theories. Machine-gun fire is so powerful that a hundred yards is enough to stop any attack by the enemy, who, to escape artillery fire, digs trenches in the rear... The war, instead of being fought over long distances, as was supposed, is fought over short distances... Therefore, the most important thing is not the long-distance onslaught, but the overcoming of a hundred or two hundred meters of open ground or nets of wire obstacles. It would therefore be advantageous to arm a certain number of tracked tractors as quickly as possible, to secure them against machine-gun fire, and to modify them to accommodate men and machine guns."


Maurray Sueter, a captain in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), held the same view as Winston Churchill, who uttered these words in January 1915 from his position as First Lord of the British Admiralty. Moreover, his beliefs were backed up by experience. For he had just returned from the front equipped with experience of the newly deployed Rolls Royce armoured cars. A man of action, Churchill acted quickly. As early as 20 February, the Landships Committee was set up to deal with land armour matters, which included, among others, the factory's Foster technical director, William Tritton.

The Little and the Big Fairy

Little Vilík, December 1915.

The design for the world's first tank was unveiled by engineer Tritton and his associate Wilson less than seven months later, in September 1915. Little Willie, as the armoured car was named in honour of his spiritual father, appeared in all its glory on 19 September. With bated breath, committee members watched his "bites" on a training polygon at the Foster factory near Lincoln. Little Willie gave it his all and passed. The Landships Committee recommended the development of another type. The new design was named Big Willie. However, the more common designation was Mark I or "Mother". Indeed, the designers were convinced that she was a sort of mother of all other tank tribes.

Big Fairy, Mother, conquers her first trench at Poppleton's Field in Lincoln in January 1916.

The mother had a box-shaped armoured hull with massive rhomboid-shaped sidewalls with tracks running around the perimeter. The naval origins of the machine were confirmed by the side sponsons with armament giving evidence that the creators of the tank had looked to the sea for inspiration. The cannons or machine guns hanging on each side clearly copied the casemate on a warship. The Mark I towed a single-axle trailer behind it, which could be swivelled and at the same time pressed to the ground by strong springs. Its function was twofold: by swivelling it with chains, it reduced the turning radius of the whole tank, and at the same time allowed it to cross trenches up to 4.5 m wide. If an armoured man were to climb down the opposite side of a trench without a trailer, there was a danger that he would not be able to get his butt out of it.

The Mothership required four men to drive, had no ventilation (so the gunshot residue stayed inside) and armour was only 5 to 10 mm thick. The drive was also very complicated, with three gearboxes transferring power from the 105 HP engine to the tracks. Although the new fighting vehicle represented a huge advance, no one knew how it would actually perform in combat. So the decision was made to have two armament variants. The so-called manly, i.e. more powerful, armoured vehicle carried 2 long-barrelled 57 mm guns and 3 machine guns. The weaker so-called female variant was then armed with only 5 machine guns.

Cover name: tank

Despite all the complexities and, from the point of view of today, perhaps even shortcomings, the Mother performed well in the field. In February 1916, therefore, she was officially presented to King Jerry V and began serial production as type Mark I. Due to secrecy from German intelligence, she was also given her codename - tank. The success of the new fighting vehicle on the battlefield was so great that this name was never forgotten and has remained forever with all of Mother's followers.

In May 1916, the world's first tank unit was born. It had six companies (A to F) and bore a somewhat misleading name: the Heavy Section Machine-gun Corps.

Monsters of the Mist Premiere


It was launched by the armies of the Agreement (France, Great Britain, Tsarist Russia and Italy) on 24 June with an artillery preparation of 1348 barrels. It marked a complete fiasco. On the first day, the Allies advanced only 6 km, losing 60,000 lives in the process. The starting point was to be the new secret weapon of the British - the tank. The first four companies of the unit were sent to France.

The first group of Mark I tanks was sent to France on 13 August 1916. C Company was the first to enter the fray in the village of Yvrench near Abbeville - but with dismounted vehicles. This was because the sponsons overran the rail profile and had to be dismantled for transport. Each weighed 1.5 tons and had to be lifted on the spot without the aid of a crane and simultaneously slid onto 16 bolts. D Company was the second to arrive at the end of August and was moved to Bray-sur-Somme, just behind the front.

The formation of tanks behind the British trenches began on 7 September 1916, but was not completed even two days before the planned attack on 15 September. In fact, A and B companies were still missing, yet the attack was not postponed. Thus, against the original plan of 100 vehicles, only 32 tanks went against the enemy. However, only 18 arrived on the battlefield - 5 were stuck in the mud and 9 had drive failures. The fate of the remaining machine remains a mystery to this day.

Although the whole tactical deployment of the armoured vehicles was full of blunders - for example, it was completely illogical not to wait for A and B companies, and the tanks attacked dispersed in two or three pieces across the width of the front - the psychological impact was great. Just imagine: A roaring monster suddenly bursting out of the fog at the unsuspecting Germans, firing from all barrels, which could not be silenced even by constant rifle fire. It shatters wire obstacles like a spider's web and spins easily over the trench. Then, from its huge hull, the untouched British infantry rushes out and launch a bayonet charge.

Panic broke out when the tanks attacked and the British infantry advanced considerably. But the tanks were few and could not silence all the machine guns that pinned the infantry in place. A few armoured vehicles even broke through to Fleurs, but unfortunately without infantry support. After a heroic struggle, their crews eventually had to surrender.

New Generation and Achievements

The creators of the Mother were right. Even the limited success on the Somme showed the immense potential of the new weapon. The Mark I was followed by the Mark II, Mark III and Mark IV. From it, a tank corps was formed just in time to hit the bits at Cambrai. It was here, on November 20, 1917, that tanks operated en masse for the first time on favorable and hard terrain. The entire corps of three brigades (a total of 476 vehicles), each already equipped with a radio, attacked without any prior artillery preparation. It was a bolt from the blue, and the Allies achieved a 6.6km advance on a 10km front with less than 6,000 men (including 600 tankers) lost. The anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai is still celebrated today by members of the British Royal Tank Regiment as a holiday.

Our Armoured Trials

Not only the British had their armoured Rolls Royce in the early 20th century. As early as 1903, an ing. Paul Daimler, one of the most important Austro-Hungarian men in the automotive industry of the time, on his wheeled armoured car. It was a four-cylinder Daimler type with 22 kW of power and a two-axle drive. On the chassis was a hull with a semi-open, later fully covered, swivel turret. It boasted an armament of 1 or 2 Maxim machine guns made of 3 mm thick nickel steel. The 2,100 kg car was completed at the Daimler Engine Company in New Town, Vienna and was referred to as the Daimler 1905. It was presented with great success at a military exercise in 1905, and a year later the Kaiser of Austria became acquainted with it. However, his general staff eventually rejected the production on the following grounds: the car is not suitable for military use because it frightens horses.

Daimler 1905


But it was not the only attempt to produce armoured cars on our territory. "It is very little known, for example, that armored cars were also developed at the Skoda plants in Pilsen. And similarly at the Praga factory," says Vladimír Francev of the Historical Institute of the Army of the Czech Republic.

Motorized mobile firing range

Škodovka was a famous and also very predatory industrial enterprise focused on arms production. It did not have its own automotive department, but together with some other Austro-Hungarian companies, it formed a kind of community of interest - including the Daimler company. However, when his armoured car failed at the Generalitat, Škoda's management started to develop the car according to its own plans. "But only a prototype was built," says Vladimir Francev, "We can find it among the cannons and other material in the Skoda catalogue of 1907, but the technical description and parameters were blown away by time. We do not know anything about its further fate."However, we can read at least something from the catalogue. The chassis had two rigid axles, longitudinal leaf feathers and rear axle drive. It can also be stated with certainty that the armour was made of flat plates 3 mm thick and made of special steel. When driving, the lower and rear plates could be lifted completely, leaving the engine exposed. In the firing position, on the other hand, the plates were lowered to the ground to protect the engine. Above, the armoured hull was not covered. The driver lacked portholes and had to drive the car from an elevated seat. The vehicle had a total of six machine gun ranges with pivots for heavy machine guns, four on the sides and one each at the front and rear. The armament consisted of two heavy machine guns of the Škoda system of 8 mm calibre. The cartridges were placed in boxes of 510 pieces suspended inside the hull of the vehicle. The equipment also included two tripods for use of the machine guns outside the vehicle. This vehicle could probably best be described as a mobile machine gun range. If you imagine it, you might smile, but at the time it was an experiment that took development at least a small step forward. After all, this is evidenced by two other designs from 1914 - one on a car chassis and the other on a truck chassis. They were called the Panzer Car 35 and 60, the weight was supposed to be 3550 and 3750 kg, the speed about 50 km/h. The armouring remained conventional, 3 mm. The crew was to consist of three men and the armament was to be one Skoda Model 14 machine gun on a pivot base in a swivel turret. Unfortunately, time has again buried further details.

A police car for Turkey

The Pragovka from Prague, however, was more successful, according to Vladimir Francev. It developed its armoured car in a year with a specific goal - it was to serve as a police car in Turkey, which was plagued by significant internal political problems. The prototype used a frame chassis with fixed axles and the gensets of the R-series 4-II car. The engine was a four-cylinder, gasoline, water-cooled, SV-valve, recirculating-pressure lubricated, 3824 cc engine. The vehicle had a four-blade clutch and transmission with four forward and one reverse gear. It had spoked wheels with solid rubber hoops, the rear wheels were double shaft driven and were not covered by armour. The armoured superstructure was made of 5 mm thick sheet metal. The swivel turret was exposed from above but protected by an emergency canopy. The armament consisted of one heavy machine gun Mk 07/12 with a magazine of 5000 rounds. The crew consisted of three men. The prototype passed operational tests in 1917 and was approved for production. In total, about ten units saw the light of day.

Praga R

Czechoslovak armoured vehicles

The turning point for Czechoslovak armoured vehicles was 1922 and the French light tank Renault FT. It was prototyped in 1917 and immediately introduced into the armament of the French army. Experts considered it to be the best tank in its category, and all countries building armoured units were eager to have it in their armour. The command of the Czechoslovak army also decided to procure it for the emerging assault troops at the end of 1919. But tanks were very expensive - in 1920 one cost 100,000 francs.

It was therefore planned to purchase six FT tanks. The chief of the French military mission, Gen. Pellé however, with the approval of the Minister of National Defense Clofac, ordered 75 machines for about 50 million crowns! Fortunately, this plan, unfeasible for our country, was stopped. However, the French were so annoyed by the cancellation of the large order that they refused to deliver even a single tank.

It took two whole years before the French were appeased and after difficult negotiations, the first machine was finally delivered in 1922 to the assault vehicle training unit in Milovice. By 1924, the Czechoslovak army already had an impressive number of seven FT tanks and thus a carrier-type armoured vehicle. The vehicles remained in service for the next ten years. The last units, used for driver training, were not retired until 1939.

Renault FT 17 ev. no. 13.009

The FT was assembled from 6 to 16 mm thick steel plates. The front wall of the round turret was 22 mm thick. The commander and also the gunner operated either a 3.7 cm Puteaux SA gun or an 8 mm Hotchinks machine gun in the turret. The rear of the vehicle housed a Renault four-cylinder petrol engine. The tank was able to develop a top speed of 7.8 km/h on the road with a range of 35 km. The weight was 6.5 tonnes in the machine gun version and 6.7 tonnes in the gun version. But let's go back for a moment to a time when the FT was still the future - 1918

World War I was over in Europe, men were returning home from the front, and on 28 October 1918, an independent Czechoslovakia was formed. It was clear that the new state also needed a new army and a modern one at that. During the war, the men at the front became familiar with the latest screams of technology, designed to kill. It was almost logical to use their experience to produce armoured vehicles.

Unfortunately, things were different. But the development took rather dead ends and was accompanied by a series of painful mistakes.

For example, the Skoda factory received an order in 1919 to build twelve armoured cars on Fiat-Torino chassis. The cars featured a rather tall body with two small turrets - each with a Maxim 08 machine gun. However, they also had a major weakness - a low-powered engine and wheels with narrow hoops that precluded off-road use. Add in ineffective brakes and a number of other minor flaws, and it's no wonder the cars were scrapped by 1925.

Skoda Fiat-Torino

The glimmer of better times for the Škoda brand began in 1923, when two PA-1 prototypes were completed. The concept was revolutionary for its time, as the company opted for a special chassis. It had four-wheel drive and steering and travelled forwards and backwards at the same speed.It also had two drivers - one sitting in front and one in the back. Each could take over the steering at any time using a reverse lever.

This vehicle also had some shortcomings, however. These were corrected in the following type series of PA-2 armoured cars. The famous Turtle boasted an unchanged chassis, but also a redesigned body. The turret was removed, reducing the silhouette and increasing the stability of the car. The body surface was rounded, improving ballistic protection. Four Maxim 08 machine guns, located in the corners of the fighting compartment, theoretically allowed firing on all sides. The ammunition supply was 9,000 rounds per machine gun. The vehicles reached speeds of up to 70 km/h on the road. However, some "mouches" could be found: the high weight of 7.36 tons and the low ground clearance of the chassis greatly limited the ground clearance. Another disadvantage was the lack of space in the fighting area - the gunners could not operate two machine guns simultaneously.

The paradox remains that although these machines were never inducted into the arsenal, they were taken into army service, widely used and presented at all parades and manoeuvres. The machines have proved their reliability several times. For example, in 1925 a platoon of three Turtles drove the route Milovice- Žilina- Košice- Bratislava - Prague - Milovice over a length of 1600 km with a daily average distance travelled of 381 - 412 km. These were absolutely incredible results for that time.

Simultaneously with the production of the PA-2, ŠKODA worked on the development of the next generation - the PA-3 - from the beginning of 1924. The new vehicle shared some of the same chassis components but was smaller, more agile and cheaper. The rounded shape of the body was changed to a combination of a large number of inclined flat surfaces. This arrangement was ballistically as durable but much cheaper, which played a significant role at the time.

The frame chassis carried a four-cylinder petrol engine and a four-speed gearbox at the front. Both axles were driven and steered, but not all wheels. The rear axle (depending on the direction of travel) was driven and the front axle steered. The body of the car was assembled from 5.5 mm thick steel armour plates, applied to an L-section steel frame. Each driver had two portholes protected by bulletproof glass and an armoured lockable screen. A conical turret in the centre of the car carried a heavy machine gun of the 7/24 type in an articulated tube. Two more machine guns of the same type were on either side of the turret. At the rear of the turret was a searchlight with an armoured cover. Another heavy machine gun was located at the rear of the hull. In addition, each vehicle concealed a pattern 26 machine gun as a backup weapon.

The vehicles were not equipped with radios and communicated using colored flags.


Interestingly, the prototype was made of unarmored sheet metal, and in this form, even after severe testing, it was inducted into the army in 1927 under the designation OA Mk. 27. The armoured bodies were only fitted later, and only from 1929 onwards.

The OA Mk. 27 was a very robust and well-maintained car. Its indisputable advantage was improved firing efficiency: the machine guns were in fact equipped with sighting optics. However, the high weight and price of 626,770 CZK caused the army to introduce only fifteen units into the arsenal.

Severe Winter 1938
František Fortin's family archive.

The type attracted considerable attention abroad. Yugoslavia, Poland, Belgium, China and Japan, for example, were in line for supplies. Unfortunately, a lack of production capacity meant that deliveries dried up.

The so-called wheel-caterpillar was another Czech product of a very popular concept. They were so called because they could go fast on the road and off-road. In the first case, they used wheels and in the second case, they used tracks. The pioneer of this system was the American engineer Christie, who later became famous for the design of the chassis used by the T-34. The tracks could be removed and the running wheels were then used to move along the road. The system was popular mainly in England and the Soviet Union.

The Czechoslovak army, however, used a more complicated system, purchased from Ing. Volmer. The system used a combination of a lifting wheeled chassis and the crawler chassis of a Hanomag WD-50 tractor. The two vehicles, built in cooperation between Ringhofer's Kopřivnice plant, Laurin and Klement of Mladá Boleslav and Breitfeld-Daněk of Prague, even carried their own ramp for changing wheels for tracks. The experienced crew took about 15 minutes to swap. The vehicles were named KH-50 and qualified as artillery tractors. Both examples underwent thorough testing at the Military Technical Institute in Prague. One was very soon worn out to the point that it had to be scrapped, the other was fitted by the manufacturer with a tank-type body with a swivel turret and a Škoda d/27 infantry gun of 37 mm calibre for further testing. When further rebuilt, it was fitted with a conical turret, two Schwarzlose Mk. 24 machine guns and in 1930 the army inducted it into the army under the designation KH-60. Two more machines were sold to the Soviet Union and one to Italy.

Wheel-caterpillar KH-50, summer 1925, 305th Artillery Regiment.

It should be noted, however, that this type, although used in only one piece in this country, was still listed in 1939 by the German tables for identifying vehicle types among active types!

Surprisingly, despite the failure, in 1932 Skoda was asked by the army to develop prototypes of heavy tanks with combined chassis. Tatra was given the same task. The two factories were to produce two prototypes each. They were not allowed to use Vollmer's original patented system, and the other specifications were also very demanding: a required speed of 40 km/h, an operating time of up to eight hours and high engine power. The armour was very weak for a heavy tank - only 16 mm, and the armament was to be a 75 mm gun and two heavy machine guns. Everything was to weigh no more than twelve tons.

Skodovka soon learned that the specified parameters were almost impossible to keep. Although the prototype produced had a very interesting concept with two four-cylinder engines and the wheeled part of the chassis placed inside the armoured hull between the tracks, the machine suffered from many ailments. The army was therefore asked to change the specification to a purely tracked heavy tank. This was finally granted to the company after many delays in July 1934. The result was the Š-III tank. It had a frontal armour thickness of 32 mm and side armour from 24 to 30 mm. It was armed with a 47 mm cannon and two heavy machine guns. It weighed 15 tons and had a top road/terrain speed of 25/15 km/h.

Skoda Š-III

Tatra worked on the concept of a combination chassis, later used on the KTT artillery tractor. The driver hydraulically swapped the wheels for tracks. The tank, designated T-III, was powered by an air-cooled, eleven-cylinder, hydraulically controlled radial engine.

Wehrmacht engineers take over the chassis of a Tatra T-III tank prototype after March 15, 1939.

The prototypes were not free of errors and mistakes this time either. The army eventually bought the Skoda machines, but they never lived up to the hopes placed on them. The Tatras were even returned to the manufacturer to be redesigned

"Although there are a lot of interesting things to be found in these concepts, it is safe to say that they did not deliver the expected progress. Overall, they have slowed down the development of tanks in our country. A lot of resources have been wasted that could have been used much more efficiently, " concludes Vladimir Francev.

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