Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Ghost of Edward

Nearly a year ago I wrote about Soviet robotic tanks. As with all nations with this sort of research they kept the program a secret. Well its no surprise that other nations started thinking along the same lines and developed their own programs. One of those was of course Britain.

In the early 30's the British Army and the Royal Navy worked together on remote control ships, one project was fitting Coastal Motor Boats with radio control, although that never reached completion. One project that was completed by Mr Evershed of the Royal Navy Signals School was the fitting on an old battleship, HMS Centurion, with remote control to use it as a target drone for coastal batteries.
HMS Centurion as a target ship
From that basis the idea of a remote controlled tank on land grew. The first hint of a remote controlled tank was in October 1935.  As the Air Ministry had a lot more experience with radios and electronics than the Army, the Army inquired if they knew of any reason why a remote control tank wouldn't work up to a distance of two miles from its control station. With the Air Ministries positive reply the Army proposed to set up a conference on the subject and start a joint project.

There is some argument as to whom came up with the idea of the remote control tank. Brigadier Percy Hobart makes the claim it was his idea, however that is based entirely upon a minute in a 1937 meeting being deleted. A review into the UK records conducted in 1946 suggests the idea came from an officer called "Chapham", but fails to credit him with his full name.

On the 5th of December 1935 the first meeting on the subject was carried out, where the basic role was laid out:
  1. To carry out reconnaissance of an area over which an attack may be made. The idea of the remote control tank was to draw fire from enemy guns, so that they may be targeted.
  2. To find out the location of enemy minefields by driving into them and finally to be used as a mobile mine. the explosive charge could also be used to destroy the tank should it be in danger of being captured. A requirement was that it should be controllable from a standard issue army radio set.

The project was codenamed "Edward".

Upon hearing this the Air Ministry declared it would likely take two years to develop. and then both elements of the Air Ministry present at the conference started using the project as a chance to empire build. The Royal Aircraft Establishment demanded an increase in staffing levels, while the Air Ministry itself asked for an extra £5000 in its budget to be taken from the armies allocation. However in 1936 the project was regulated to minor status as the Air Ministry was working on its own project, a rocket powered remote control plane. Of the £5000 allocated to the Air Ministry only £708 of the grant had been spent on the project, of that £638 was for the gearbox.

Initial testing found that an automatic gearbox was needed. By a happy stroke of luck one had just been invented by Freeborn Power Converters Ltd, and fitted to a omnibus, where it had completed 28,000 miles without fault.
Best guess at the type of bus fitted with the gearbox.
With the gearbox sorted the rest of the tank was needed. In the end a Light Tank Mk II was used, and fitted with a Rolls Royce engine. Visual changes over a normal Mk II Light Tank were two bulges on the glacis plate to hold steering linkages. Internally an automatic starter was installed.
Standard Light tank MKII
In July 1936 the Air Ministry then announced its pet project was finished, and that it would need £4880 for 1937 to work on Edward. Once again the Army paid, however work was moving forward and in February 1937 an issue with the steering control was solved. However the Army was getting restless. With its budget going missing and no apparent feedback it led to Colonel Giffard Martel sending a very strongly worded series of letters enquiring how the project was progressing. The Air Ministry managed to placate the angry Army, by pointing out that by May 1937 the radio equipment was working well under laboratory conditions. However the mechanical side of things wasn't going so well. The brakes were far too powerful slamming full on as soon as they were engaged. However conversely the servos powering the gear select and the track drives were too weak. The Air Ministry announced that Edward would be complete in 3-6 months.

Edward was privately demonstrated on 1st of June 1936, and announced ready for full demonstrations on 2nd July. However those demonstrations didn't take place until the following year. In the 13 Jan 1937 demonstrations the witnesses were very impressed by the performance of Edward. However a question was raised. Somewhere in the previous year Edward had switched from a project for service to a technology demonstrator. The visiting dignitaries asked where the research project could go from its current high point. One suggestion was to use Edward as target for anti-tank gun training.

However in light of its flawless performance Edward was given a stay of execution. Some additional goals were added, to increase the range of operation up to 3000 yards, the ability to lay a smoke screen (which resulted in an air compressor being fitted) and a safety system that would stop the tank if it didn't receive a signal for more than 30 seconds. Trials at Bovington were scheduled for later that year, and Edward moved back to being a project for a service piece of equipment. The Air Ministry asked for another £5200 to cover development in 1938, which was approved on Christmas Eve 1937.
No.11 wireless set
In late 1937 the Army was developing its new radio set, the number 11 set. It would give the added range needed to reach 3000 yards control, so it was tested out with Edward.  Almost immediately Edward developed its own consciousness, sometimes driving around under its own control ignoring the signals from the control unit.  Throughout the remainder of 1937 and the first half of 1938 Edward continued to display signs of self control.  The issues continued so much that the two establishments involved with the project were looking to either adapt the Queen Bee target drone control gear, or build special purpose equipment.
Queen Bee Target drone
In the end it was found that a certain set of inputs on the No.11 radio would cause excess radiation from the set which was flooding Edwards receiver with fake signals causing the tank to drive itself.  The solution was to use the old No.9 set linked with a No.11 set. And not a moment too soon. On 1st of November 1938 a new demonstration was held.  This time two Edwards performed flawlessly for ten minutes being commended on the crisp highly responsive nature of their movements. The demonstration was brought to a halt when one of the Edwards threw a track.

For some reason at this high point the Edward project was wound up with a notification sent to the Air Ministry to stop work on 14th December 1938. Some discussions were held about fitting Edwards to A12 Matilda Seniors to serve as gunnery targets, although there's no record of this being carried out.