Purpose of this blog

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Steam Tank

 As I warned last week, this article is a day early due to me having to go to work tomorrow, and thus won't be able to post.

One of the great things in this pastime is finding an answer to a riddle, and it's even better when it leads to a "you what?!" moment, as you're reading a document in disbelieving awe. For a great many years there has been a picture floating around the internet, namely this one:
As you can see it's a Bren gun carrier with a big gun mounted on it. The gun is a Smith Gun as used by the Home Guard, but no one knew what it was for until now. The best guess was an unknown Home Guard battalion somewhere trying to get themselves an armoured tank destroyer. In fact it was a trial build to test if the gun’s mounting could be married directly to an armoured vehicle. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1940, the UK was standing alone and in imminent danger of invasion, and so the Local Defence Volunteers were formed. These were soon to be renamed the Home Guard. While we now know that any attempt by Germany to invade Britain would have been crushed in in hours, and was doomed to failure, at the time that piece of information was not widely circulated. This lead to a flurry of home defence ideas, not least of which was getting some armoured vehicles to the Home Guard. In due course a committee was set up on 22nd of August 1940 to study the idea of getting a tank for the Home Guard. The committee started out with the name of "Auxiliary Armour Committee", but was soon changed to a name that gives us a clue as to its purpose. The "Steam Committee".

Yes, the Home Guard tank was to be steam powered, and on consideration this isn't as dumb an idea as it sounds. First of all steam power was still in use in the country in agriculture, although nowhere near as widely as a generation before. That would mean a supply of trained and experienced people would have already been in the ranks of the Home Guard. A steam tank would be heavy, but you don't need to make grand strategic manoeuvres with it as the Home Guard needed to keep it in their local area. Equally you don't need it to be fast for similar reasons, along with its speed fitting in nicely with the concept of the the infantry tank.
Most importantly of all was consideration of the fuel supply. Petrol and diesel was tightly rationed. But the north of England is pretty much a solid lump of coal, which would mean adequate and liberal supply was available to power this Home Guard infantry tank. As a further consideration, the tank was expected to be fighting in the densely populated south of England. City fighting throws up quite a bit of timber from destroyed houses, this, it was realised, could be used as a fuel source. Which would lead to a further cut in the logistics burden.
Not quite agriculture, but the point stands I think.
The Steam Committee then, in early 1941, turned its attention to the tank's armour and nearly got derailed in the process. At first the brand new Churchill tank was suggested for the basis of the tank. But the proposal was brought up short by the Ministry of Supply pointing out that the Churchill was needed for the army, and even though the production capacity still had some slack in it in some areas, other areas such as casting and welding had large bottle necks.
After deliberation the Steam Committee suggested that flat plate be bolted together to form its protection. Bolted plate was vastly easier to produce, especially for a shipbuilding country like the United Kingdom.
Enquiries were made of a small ship building firm called Hills & Smyth Maritime, the company wasn't experienced in Government contracts and eager to help the war effort mistook the enquires as an order and began to produce the turrets with great gusto. However this mistake was spotted after only a few turrets had been built, and production halted.
One of the Hills & Smyth turrets.
You can see from the turret design that the later Churchill MK.III turret owed a large chunk of its existence to this mistake. Another curiosity you can see from the constructed turrets is that the roofs were rather thick. This is because the Steam Committee expected waves of Stukas to be over head and were keen to avoid a repeat of France where the Stukas were credited with huge destruction. Of course again, we now know this was more propaganda than actual effect.

With propulsion and the armour and turret sorted the Steam Committee turned its attention to the gun. The new three inch OSB Mk.I Smith Gun was soon to come into service and was chosen for the weapon, right up until the moment someone asked about the firing mechanism and mount. A Smith Gun was fired by a horizontal handle and with the crewman crouching a bit behind, sort of like a grenade launcher. Tank guns of the period were shoulder shoved like a giant rifle. Manufacturing a new mount would cause further delays so the trial on the Bren Gun Carrier took place to see if the gun could be operated under armour. It was found that it worked perfectly and so plans were drawn up to mount the sights and gun directly onto the back of the turret front.
A curiosity of the Smith Gun is that it's a smoothbore. The Steam Committee even tried out firing rubble with a blank charge to turn it into a giant shotgun. Again this rubble could come from bombed out buildings. From those tests it was suggested that any hard object could be fired, suggestions for appropriate ammo type from a more theatrically minded member of the Steam Committee included the idea that a local carpenter could knock up a giant wooden stake!
These trials with the Smith gun did have one lasting effect. The trials report includes a list of the Home Guardsmen who took part in the trial. On that list was a name that rang a bell, Jimmy Perry. A quick google shows he was one of the writers of the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army. In one of those episodes (“We know our Onions”) a Smith gun is used to fire a barrage of onions with a blank round. Mr Perry did later say that the series was based on his experiences with the Home Guard.
The order form for the armour plate.
As it turned out the Steam Committee delivered its plans and initially production was approved. Time had marched on to June 1941 and the situation regarding home defence had altered significantly, although the order above was issued, it was cancelled within days. With its work done the Steam Committee was disbanded and the people involved moved onto other things. The handful of bolted turrets were used for resistance testing and shot to pieces, and these tests showed the massive flaws of bolted armour, and so some good did come out of the entire project. Even if Home Guard Steam tanks would have been cooler.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Clouds of Scuds

Note: Next weeks article will be out a day early, on the Saturday, as I have to go into work on Sunday, and so won't be able to post on the normal day.

Whilst hunting for a story this week a friend mentioned Scud missiles, and I thought yeah an article on the 1991 Gulf War, and the battle between Scuds and Patriots, and how the Patriots managed to miss every shot they fired might work! So I started looking at Scuds, and quickly found a much more interesting use in their history.
On February 15th 1989 the Soviet Union finally pulled the last of their combat troops out of Afghanistan, leaving only a few technical advisors. The Marxist government was expected to collapse very quickly by the Mujahideen rebels, so much so that a government in exile was set up. The cabinet's first meeting, with ten of the sixteen ministers appointed was held at a rebel training base consisting of a few stone huts in the mountains. There they were told that their next meeting would be in a very different location, Kabul! However this governmental collapse failed to materialise. So the Mujahideen, possibly prompted by the Pakistanis, drew up their own plan. The idea was to capture Jalalabad, giving the government in exile a foothold inside Afghanistan.

The choice of attacking Jalalabad seems an odd one. The government troops had somewhere in the region of 12000 soldiers, while the Mujahideen had about 7000 men they could deploy. Equally the civilian population was seen to be very loyal to the government, some said that it was the second most loyal place in Afghanistan after Kabul. However it was seen as a test case to see how easy it is to capture a city, plus it was seen as having a large impact on the government.
So on the 5th of March 1989 the Afghanistan forces launched their attack. Successes at the start of the attack despite the smaller force of attackers seemed to bode well. The main highway into the city was cut, and the rebels managed to get to the airfield after two days. They also overran several garrisons.
However in the last case several of the government soldiers who surrendered were executed by the rebels. When word of these massacres got around the government troops refused to surrender as they knew they'd have no chance. With the airfield surrounded the government could only get helicopters into the city, and even that was risky. Equally using jets and helicopters to attack the enemy was made massively more dangerous by the presence of US supplied Stinger missiles. However by the 9th the airport had been recaptured, and the attack blunted. At the height of the battle the rebels fired over 12,000 rockets, mortars and artillery rounds over a period of 24 hours.
The government had to respond and it turned to one of the weapons left by the Soviets, its stockpile of Scud missiles. On the evening of Sunday the 12th of March a volley of six missiles was launched from the base at Darulaman, ten miles south of Kabul, and some 100 odd miles from the fighting. During the course of the three month battle some 400+ Scuds were launched by three batteries. The targets chosen for these seem to be very optimistic, being aimed at targets within five miles of friendly troops. Indeed one Scud overshot its target, hitting Pakistan, although luckily all it did was make a very large crater in the landscape.
This veritable barrage of Scuds did quite some damage to the attackers. Mainly to their morale. A Scud would arrive and explode with no warning and no defence. Another source of morale damage was the supply issues. The rebels launched their attack with just enough ammunition for a weeks fighting, and the logistics couldn't cope with the grinding stalemate that followed.
 However the biggest problems with the attack were political. All the forces involved in the Mujahideen attack were best described by the term "Warband". They each belonged to a separate group of individuals fighting against the government. The two largest war bands seriously distrusted each other. One assassinated the lower leaders of his rival, in return his rival allowed a large reinforcement convoy through his lines to launch an attack. As well as this distrust there was no coordination and no unified command. With no control groups would launch an attack when the mood took them, and with no support from other bands. The final problem was the choice of attacking Jalalabad was seen as very suspect, and entirely a figment of the Pakistani intelligence services, and a great many of the Mujahideen were opposed to this strategy.

After three months of bitter fighting the Mujahideen withdrew on the 16th of May. The war, however was set to continue, despite the Mujahideen having a defeat in their first stand up battle.

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