WW2 Italian Tank Prototypes

Biemmi Naval Tank

Kingdom of Italy (1930)
Amphibious Tank – None Built

The problem of tanks getting over water, rivers, small lakes, or flooded ground has plagued tank designs right from WW1. A variety of solutions have been tried over the years, depending on how much water needs to be waded through or how wide the waterway is. The problems are numerous, from keeping the vehicle watertight, maintaining buoyancy, maintaining stability in the water, how to propel the tank through the water, and how to manage all of that within the context of a vehicle which would still need to maintain some semblance of viability when operating on land.

Some tanks simply adopt the philosophy of providing as much sealing as possible to raise the fording depth as far as possible. This obviously limits the tank design to relatively small bodies of water and ones on which the tank can still drive using the tracks on the ground under the water.

The next step would be to enable the tank to float, and through the 1920s and 1930s, various vehicles were tried, either being inherently buoyant i.e. able to float without the use of external floats being added, or optionally buoyant i.e. using floating pods attached to the tank.

Both of those options have serious shortcomings, with the tanks being generally small and lightly armored to keep the weight down and/or using large bulky pods or buoyancy packs which have to be shipped separately. They also come with a greater price tag and were vulnerable to enemy fire. Even in the 21st century, it is a difficult challenge, and perhaps the most successful fully amphibious ‘tank’ would be the Soviet era PT-76, and even then, it never got past the problem of relatively weak levels of protection.

Into this gap of ‘how do we maximise our tank to make it operate in more than one realm’ came a variety of designers and designs. A design from Felix Longobardi in 1918 really exemplifies the problem. Longobardi’s vehicle was little more than a ship with wheels, virtually useless on land and not much less useless in the water, where the wheels and other features would simply get in the way of good streamlining.

Longobardi’s combination design, featuring a boat-like hull and wheels. The idea was that it could also fly, but this was fantasy at best.
Source: US Patent 1286679

An Italian by the name of Oscar Biemmi presented a design in 1930 for a vehicle which would solve the problem of propulsion in water, and solve the dichotomy of land and water mobility. What Biemmi proposed was a vehicle with a moving body lying between two tracked bodies. Essentially, a ship-like hull suspended on either side by a track unit so that, when it was in water, the ship-part took a dominant role and, on land or when wading deeply, the track part was the dominant one.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Biemmi, in reviewing and looking at the past for inspiration, saw, quite correctly, that landing troops and especially vehicles on an opposing shore, especially a defended one, was a significant military challenge. Certainly, he would not be alone in that conclusion, and for 1930, was perhaps a little more advanced in his thinking than somewhere like the UK, which had done little in terms of developing a means of landing men and vehicles as an amphibious assault force since the end of WW1.

Landing men and machines on a beach was a timely and difficult process. A process that was made harder by tides and winds, the deleterious effects of water on machines, in particular corroding metal and damaging circuits. There was also the difficulty of moving from the water to the land as a transition across soft sand or loose shale.

Based on his current level of knowledge, Biemmi predicted that, at that time, should the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) in particular attempt such a landing, it would be doomed to fail. There was no prospective opponent for such a theorised landing, although, as a major nation within the Mediterranean Sea region, there was clearly no shortage of other shorelines on which troops might have to be landed. Biemmi was clearly correct in that the inability to conduct such an operation would be a serious shortcoming for the Army, so it had to be addressed.

The result was that, in October 1930, Biemmi wrote an article in a Science magazine advocating for a dedicated vehicle for exactly this role and to navigate the unique landing environment concerned, a vehicle as at home in the sea as it was in the shallows and on land. This was his idea for a “Tank-Marine“. Literally this was to be a ‘Naval Tank’ and its role was to bring heavy fire support to an amphibious landing. This vehicle could support the troops coming ashore – very much the sort of role a modern amphibious marine assault vehicle is used for.


The basic layout of the Naval Tank was in three sections, rather akin to a hot dog. The sausage itself was the ‘ship’ part of the vehicle, and the bun on either side was the land ‘tank’ part. The central section was made with vertical sides and a rounded top and bottom. The bottom formed the keel of the tank which, when in the water, would provide stability and, whilst on land, form the bottom of the hull of the vehicle.

In this central portion lay the powerplant which, according to Biemmi’s drawing, was located centrally, directly under the conning tower. Fore and aft of the powerplant were a series of vertical hydraulic cylinders which were connected at the base to the floor of this central section and were connected the central supporting framework for the whole vehicle. The rear of this section was rounded off, whilst the front was sharply angled to a point projecting just beyond the rearmost point of the tracks.

The three parts of Biemmi’s Naval Tank showing the central section with the pointed front end and rounded rear.
Source: Radio – Scienza e Vita, October 1930.

On either side of the ‘dog’ was the ‘bun’, consisting of a pair of mirror image track units. With an all-round track (track running around the outside of the unit), each one was constructed from a large lattice framework, with the top and bottom of the track running parallel to each other. The rear was angled sharply upwards at about 45º, whilst the front of the track units was rounded off symmetrically above and below. The sides of the track units were not vertical but were convex, projecting out from the front producing a rounded side profile.

On top of all of this was a pair of gun batteries, with one at each end of the central section, forming a line of three guns on each side. Between those and in the center of the hull was an oval frustoconical conning tower.

Cross-section view of Biemmi’s design showing the large frameworks for the track units.
Source: Radio – Scienza e Vita, October 1930.


Whilst Biemmi drew several guns, he made no comments about the sort of suggested armament for such a vehicle. With the goal of supporting troops as they came ashore, a variety of weapons, from machine guns up to medium caliber artillery guns, may have been thought of. However, without mentioning or suggesting suitable choices, it can only be speculated what he was considering for armament.

The arrangement, however, is well shown. Two banks of guns, with one fore and the other aft, formed into what appears to be a traverse-fixed firing mounting, each with 3 guns. The mounting is shown with a curved face and vertical rear. Slots in this were provided to allow for high elevation. The vehicle would have to point in the right direction for weapons arranged like this to have any value, and regardless of which way it faced, the other battery would be facing in the opposite direction and be of little of no use. The fixed conning tower was also armed. The tower itself was oval and fixed to the hull, with the sides sloping upwards to a shallowly domed roof and surrounded by what, from the drawing, appears to be a small safety rail. In the center of that was a cylindrical structure which could have been an idea for a turret, but which is neither shown armed nor obviously rotatable. Instead, the only armament shown in the tower are four weapons mounted around the outer circumference, arranged equidistantly apart, so that two were on each side, meaning whichever way the vehicle approached a target or was approached by another vessel, at least two of the guns would be able to face it. Once more, no specified armament was suggested.


Propulsion for the Naval Tank was by means of conventional internal combustion engines. Power from these engines would be delivered to the tracks when operating on land and to the pair of propellers when in the water for movement. Whilst it may appear that the three sections of the machine moved relative to each other, this is not the case. It was only the hull/keel of the middle section which moved, pushed down into a position below the bottom of the tracks on either side of it when being propelled in the water.

With the bottom of the central section pushed down hydraulically to form a keel, the Naval Tank was more ship than tank.
Source: Radio – Scienza e Vita, October 1930.

When the vehicle operated in shallow water or on land, the hydraulic rams lifted the hull/keel part of the central section back into place. Thus, the vehicle would, in theory, be able to drive from land into the water, become buoyant and then push down the keel to begin to travel as a ship. On the converse, as the vessel approached land, the keel would be raised, allowing the tracks to contact the ground and the vehicle to then drive ashore under its own power. All of this movement could be done without affecting the top of the vehicle, which could interrupt either visibility or the ability to deliver fire in support of the troops.

On Land

Whilst operating on land, the hull of the central section of the Naval Tank would be in the ‘up’ position, allowing the track units to have contact with the ground. The top speed would be just 10 km/h, which was not fast by any means, but would have been more than sufficient to support unmounted infantry, and was essentially just the same sort of speed of a tank from WW1.

Biemmi’s Naval Tank seen in ‘land mode’, with the hull of the central section elevated back to its normal position. Note that it is drawn as if it is still in shallow water, with the surface over the lever of the top of the tracks. In a position like this, only the conning tower would be visible.
Source: Radio – Scienza e Vita, October 1930.

In the Sea

At sea, with the hull in the ‘down’ position, the keel of the vehicle was down, providing stability, and the top of the track sections was out of the water. They were, however, still submerged to more than half their depth, and this provides a necessary width to the vessel to provide stability, albeit, at the cost of some streamlining.

It was, afterall, not a true ship anyway, so this is not such a problem, and yet, even so, Biemmi proposed a top speed in the water of 15 km/h from the propellers.

Side view of Biemmi’s Naval Tank (facing left to right) showing the lower part of the central section fully lowered and the propellers exposed to propel it through the water.
Source: Radio – Scienza e Vita, October 1930.


Whilst at sea, the Naval Tank would float with only the tops of the tracks and central hull section exposed above the water line. The deck of the central section, carrying the primary firepower and the conning tower, would be visible, but were of a low profile and able to return fire just as easily at sea (notwithstanding the movement of the water) as it would on land. Certainly, those immersed parts would be well protected from enemy observations and fire, as they are below the water line.

The sides over the track units were convex, made from 8 large armored panels. Presumably, the tank was to be made from steel to provide some modicum of protection, although Biemmi neither provided the material nor any idea of what sort of protection he was thinking of. For all of the moving parts of the track and suspension however, he does provide information, namely proposing making these areas out of stainless steel to prevent corrosion.


Biemmi’s design was really more of a concept of perhaps how such a vehicle might look and work, and he wrote that the size could be varied depending where such a vehicle might be intended to operate. These could be small vehicles for intercoastal work offloaded from a ‘mother’ ship, and perhaps larger vehicles for taking a landing all the way across the sea under its own power all or some of the way, and using this larger version to show all of the features in the best detail.

Biemmi was undoubtedly correct in his goal to provide some thought on the problems of amphibious tanks or landing tanks from the sea. He even considered some of the problems of corrosion of components too and how to provide both propulsion and stability. However, where this design seriously falls short is undoubtedly within the ideas of armament. The conning tower appears to be fixed in place, meaning that the weaponry has to be deployed around it to provide the firepower in different directions. Allowing this tower to rotate as a turret would at least have allowed the firepower to be concentrated in one place and reduced the number of men needed to operate such a vehicle. Each gun required an operator and all of the problems of trying to command and control a large crew, of whom perhaps half were facing their weapons in the wrong direction.

Indeed, given the large Italian Navy (Regia Marina) at the time, it is somewhat surprising that the vehicle was simply not provided even with a naval style of central turret or any turret at all. Replacing the conning tower with a turret and abandoning the fixed hull guns would have provided a vehicle needing fewer crew and fewer guns and able to focus all of its firepower in one point as well as being easier to control.

Biemmi also missed one other potential feature – a large hatch or door of some description. The possibility of internal space within the central part of the machine could easily have been repurposed in some manner to create some space for landing troops.

Despite the good intentions of Biemmi to try and provoke some thought on a naval tank for Italy, it came to nothing. Ten years later, when Italy entered WW2 on the side of Germany, it still had no such vehicle and was still dominated by vehicles such as the CV.3 Series light tank, with the heaviest tank which might be involved in such an attack being the M.11/39 medium tank. Neither of these vehicles would be suitable for the purpose Biemmi envisaged.

The cover of Popular Science May 1938 chose to illustrate a featurette on the amphibious landing of a Christie tank from a barge, with what appears to a pseudo-submarine-delivered unarmed Italian CV.3/35 light tank. Certainly no indication as to the state of Italian amphibious landing plans or truly much to do with the article inside.
Source: Popular Science Magazine May 1938
The Biemmi Naval Tank. Illustrated by Henry Aponte

Specifications Biemmi’s Naval Tank

Crew unknown
Engine Internal Combustion type
Speed 10 km/h (land), 15 km/h (water)
Armament 6 fixed traverse guns in two batteries on the hull. Four guns in fixed conning tower.


Popular Science Magazine, May 1935
Radio – Scienza e Vita, year II – N. 13 – 1-15 October 1930.

Fictional Tanks Film Prop Tanks WW2 British Fake Tanks

Tanks from The Shape of Things to Come

United Kingdom (1936)
Science Fiction Tank

The classic film Things to Come hit the big screen in 1936. Right at the outset of what would become WW2, this film, directed by William Menzies, predicted a devastating conflict in Europe which would last for years and destroy the very fabric of society. It was based on H. G. Wells’ science fiction book The Shape of Things to Come released in 1933.

Wells and Tanks

H. G. Wells was born in Victorian England in 1866 and went on to become one of the best known science fiction writers in history, with titles such as The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), and the War of the Worlds (1898). Wells is also famous for his story ‘The Land Ironclads’, published in 1903 in The Strand Magazine. This fascinating piece of speculative fiction has often been seen as an influence on tank development, despite the fact the insect-like, pedrail-wheeled vehicles bore minimal resemblance to anything that saw actual production.

Wells’ Land Ironclad of 1903. Source: The Strand Magazine

Much of Wells’ work involves creative visions and ideas of what the future of warfare might look like from the perspective of a man born at the height of the industrial revolution. Much of his inspiration stems from the works of earlier writers, such as Albert Robida, as well as the innovative use of armored trains during the Boer Wars in South Africa.

His prescience has, however, been seemingly overblown for this relatively minor story in a science-fiction magazine relying in part on his connection to a man like Sir Ernest Swinton, who also wrote for the magazine. This is despite Swinton himself saying it was not the reason for the invention and that it had no influence on the work. Focussing therefore on this relatively minor aspect of a long writing career has also managed to detract from his vehicles in the 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come. In the book, he says relatively little about these war machines – perhaps to the surprise of people who choose to credit him with the ‘invention’ of the tank.

Wells’ real tanks are best seen not in this book, or even in his Strand Magazine story from 30 years prior, but instead, in the film based on the book. Wells was personally in attendance during parts of the shooting, he knew the director and producer, wrote the screenplay, and had a strong personal input into all elements of the film. This perhaps explains why it is often considered a little slow and rambling, interspersed with overly long and flowery speeches from the main protagonist. But these stylistic touches extend to the visuals as well, and it is certain that Wells both saw and approved of the futuristic tank designs depicted in the film. We can therefore infer that he saw these as a better reflection of his concepts for the future of armored warfare, especially in comparison to the fanciful, insectoid machines of his 1903 publication.

In the past, many films, and especially war films, have been made with an eye for drama and messaging over the practical realities of war. The emphasis has been on the ‘human experience’ of the troops involved, or on conveying the horrors of conflict. Regardless of the precise focus of these efforts, the results are often mixed, and many miss the mark completely. However, the short war sequences in Things to Come benefited greatly from having a cast, crew, and production team made up primarily from veterans of the Great War.

The director, William Menzies, certainly knew what war looked like, having served with the US expeditionary forces in Europe in WW1. He was not alone either; the star of the film Raymond Massey was wounded in WW1 in France whilst serving with the Canadian Field Artillery. Ralph (later Sir Ralph) Richardson was too young to take part in WW1, although he did enlist in WW2 in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and train as a pilot. Edward Chapman would end up taking a break from acting and join the Royal Air Force working as an Intelligence Officer in WW2.

The Book

Published in 1933, the story was a ‘future-history’ written in epilogue as a reminiscence by a fictional character called Dr. Phillip Raven. Raven was a diplomat writing a 5-volume history from his perspective in the year 2106.

The book initially depicts a European society irrevocably torn apart by a thirty-year economic depression followed by a prolonged war. Huge strides in aeronautical engineering results in cities being devastated by mass bomber formations, causing unthinkable casualties on all sides. With their infrastructure in ruins and plagues running rampant, nations fracture and crumble back into feudal city-states ruled by local despots and warlords. Yet Wells’ narrative also details how civilisation rebuilds after calamity and slowly but surely overcomes various issues of nationalism, fascism, and religion, replacing them with a utopian vision of a world that holds science and education among its highest values. The book went on to influence other writers and science fiction, yet remains a quiet ‘cousin’ to another futurist view of a new utopia published the year before by Aldous Huxley titled Brave New World.

Nonetheless, the book was significant enough that Alexander Korda decided to create Wells’ vision on the big screen. This could have been as some kind of antidote to the even earlier Metropolis (1927) from Fritz Lange and its view of a future society divided much akin to Huxley’s Upper and Lower class stratification.

Alexander Korda (left) sharing a conversation with H. G. Wells (right) on the set of Things to Come.

Regarding ‘tanks’ in the book, Wells makes surprisingly little mention and no description at all. There was a small reference to “the primitive tank” as a weapon in WW1 (Chapter 4), reinforcing the idea that Wells did not like the tanks the British Army was equipped with in WW1. This is reinforced by his comment (via Dr. Raven) about how “the British had first invented, and then made a great mess of, the tank in the World War, and they were a tenacious people. The authorities stuck to it belatedly but doggedly.” Though one might argue that this statement was made in-character and did not reflect Wells’ personal views, it aligned well with the British tank fleet in 1933, which consisted of an eclectic mixture of vehicles and numerous dead-end prototypes that would prove to have little military value.

“In Great Britain a group of these experts became exceedingly busy in what was called mechanical warfare. The British had first invented, and then made a great mess of, the tank in the World War, and they were a tenacious people. The authorities stuck to it belatedly but doggedly. In a time of deepening and ever bitterer parsimony their War Office spared no expense in this department. It was the last of all to feel the pinch. The funny land ironclads of all sizes these military ‘inventors’ produced, from a sort of armoured machine-gunner on caterpillar wheels up to very considerable mobile forts, are still among the queerest objects in the sheds of the vast war dumps which constitute the Aldershot Museum. They are fit peers for Admiral Fisher’s equally belated oil Dreadnoughts.”

— Chapter 4 ‘Changes in War Practice After the World War.
The Shape of Things to Come, H. G. Wells (1933)

Dr. Raven’s denunciation of the parlous state of post-war British preparation for the next war follows directly on from this brief review of armored warfare in WW1, saying:

“The British dream of the next definitive war seems to have involved a torrent of this ironmongery tearing triumphantly across Europe. In some magic way (too laborious to think out) these armoured Wurms were to escape traps, gas poison belts, mines and gunfire. There were even ‘tanks’ that were intended to go under water, and some that could float. Hansen even declared… that he had found (rejected) plans of tanks to fly and burrow. Most of these contrivances never went into action. That throws a flavour of genial absurdity over this particular collection that is sadly lacking from most war museums.”

— Chapter 4 ‘Changes in War Practice After the World War.
The Shape of Things to Come, H. G. Wells (1933)

Wells actually wrote rather inconsistently on tanks in his stories. In the Land Ironclads of 1903, they were the war winner, and in War and the Future written in 1917, he mused on gargantuan tanks, land leviathans literally the size of ships cruising across and crushing all before them. He built on this idea in part in The Work, Health and Happiness of Mankind, written in 1932, the year before The Shape of Things to Come. In that story, the power of the tanks was paramount, crushing helpless and hapless enemy soldiers into “….a sort of jam…” as they rolled across the land. Yet, these vehicles, the land leviathans, were now rendered helpless in The Shape of Things to Come, with the advent of poison gas and enemy minefields.

The Plot

Starring Raymond Massey as John and Oswald Cabal, Ralph Richardon as ‘The Boss’, and Edward Chapman as Pippa and Raymond Passworthy, the film was the production of Alexander Korda. Set in pre-war ‘Everytown’ (although it is meant to be London), the streets were full of gaiety and citizens enjoying their routine, from shopping at Sandersons department store for Christmas 1940. Food is plentiful, the people are well dressed and content, from the working man in his tweed flat cap to the toff in his top hat and tails leaving the Burleigh Cinema. In the background to this gaiety is the looming aspect of war, headlines about a nondescript enemy and the prospect of war with Europe rearming.

‘Everytown’ (a stylised London) , Christmas 1940. Source: Things to Come.

It is after Christmas that John Cabal (Raymond Massey) and Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman) and others are shocked by the unexpected news on the wireless; war has broken out, and the first bombs had already started falling on the city’s water works.

There follows a general mobilization and the passing of a national Defence Act. Meanwhile, the mood on the street becomes somber and gloomy as the war gets closer and closer to ‘Everytown’. Then, abruptly, the hustle and bustle of the streets is suddenly overwhelmed with a fleet of soldiers on motorbikes and the arrival of anti-aircraft guns in the square, followed soon by the shriek of loudhailers.

Here the film provides a short taste of what an air-raid by modern planes might look like – the sort of thing no Londoner would need to be reminded of in just a few years’ time. Warned to seek shelter and go home or use the underground, panic grips the streets as and our top-hatted toff shakes an impotent fist at the enemy above. Cabal is next seen in a uniform of the RAF, and in short order the first bombs start to fall. Soon the city is plunged into darkness as a blackout begins, eerily foreshadowing the darkness that would grip Britain’s own cities in just a few years. Nonetheless, the bombs still drop, obliterating first the cinemas and then the department store owned by the Sandersons.

The bombs have started falling and the panicked citizens flee for cover. Too late, the toff realizes his top hat is no protection from poison gas. Source: The Criterion Collection.
The aftermath of the bombing of Everytown. Lives, buildings, and vehicles lie shattered. This sort of scene would have been jarring for an audience of 1936. Source: The Criterion Collection.

This was a terrifying image to portray to audiences in 1936, as citizens were blown apart, vehicles and buildings were shattered by bombs, and finally poison gas started to fill the streets. Certainly, this was no light hearted or campy vision of a future being shown to audiences, but an all-too realistic look ahead to what a new war might bring them on the Home Front.

The viewer was then treated to a montage of combat made from stock footage of troops and machines, the Royal Navy at sea and excerpts of Vickers Medium Mark I tanks filmed during maneuvers. It is during this sequence and prior to the mass-bombing scenes (featuring what appear to be Lysanders) that the ‘future’ tanks are seen. These new tanks, not of a design which existed at the time, were designed to show the audience the progression of technology as the war developed.

Vickers Medium Tank Mk. I tank shown in the montage of the war. Source: Things to Come.
One of the future tanks used on the film, in a sequence which would date it to the period 1940-1966. Notably, the film does not make clear the identity of the force using this tank, whether it is British or someone else. Source: Things to Come.

As far as filimography goes, the air to air combat sequence which followed was certainly as good or better than some of the rather dreary contemporary films. The audience even gets to see John Cabal in action in a shiny silver open-topped Hawker Fury fighter, downing some as yet unnamed dastardly enemy who had just dropped poison gas from his Percival Mew Gull.

The time scale of the film shifts next to 21st September 1966 (also the 100th birthday of H. G. Wells). The war is dragging on and clearly things have not gone well, with rampant inflation, a shattered landscape, and the emergence of an epidemic known as the ‘wandering sickness’.

Headline of the National Bulletin 21st September 1966 showing not only rampant inflation, but also the hopeful end to the war. Source: Things to Come.

It is this wandering sickness which propels the new chapter, with Ralph Richardson as ‘The Boss’. He portrays a vicious and pompous warlord who rises to power by ruthlessly executing those unlucky enough to be struck with the wandering sickness.

By 1966, the only functional parts of society are the military and, amusingly, the fashion industry, as citizens walk dressed in rags or stereotypical Romani costumes, while still sporting immaculate hairstyles carefully slicked back by the generous application of Brylcreem. The people at this time are also half-starved – a stark contrast to the halcyon pre-war days of a well-fed populus. The wandering sickness meanwhile continues to ravage society, taking until 1970 to finally peter out.

All this time, the people remain at war, although maybe not the same war they started, for the enemy is now as much rival towns over resources, such as ‘the hill people’ and the nearby coal mines, as much as any ‘foreign’ foe. Here, ‘The Boss’ brings his army to the fore to seize the coal mines so he can make petrol and get his planes into the air.

Ralph Richardson as ‘The Boss’ channels his inner Mussolini to address a rag tag airforce on an obvious suicide mission. At his side is Rowena, played by Margaret Scott. As a curiosity more than anything else, in the scene where ‘The Boss’ is wearing his helmet (Bedeckedt with Pheasant feathers), at the front, he can be seen to be using a Cruise Visor – a type of spring-loaded chain mail visor attachment which had been invented in WW1 to protect the eyes of the wearer.
Source: Things to Come.

The Boss’ plans are thrown off by the arrival of the ludicrously-large helmeted and now gray-haired John Cabal in a modern aircraft, bringing news of a new organization. This harkens back to the idea of the League of Nations, but perhaps is closer to the post-war concept of the United Nations, albeit known by the unusual and not very intimidating name of ‘Wings Over the World’ (W.O.T.W.).

The enormously-helmeted ‘John Cabal’ returns to the people of ‘Everytown’ with a message from Wings Over the World. Source: Things to Come.

Cabal brings this news to ‘The Boss’, who imprisons him until a message of his capture can be taken to W.O.T.W. W.O.T.W’s reply is succinct yet definitive, coming as it does in the form of a fleet of giant bombers, who proceed to drop bombs full of sleeping gas on the uncivilized masses thronging the ruins of Everytown. The people are saved from starvation, poverty, and the untidily dressed, at the cost of a single human life, as the Boss expires helplessly on the steps of the city hall. The arrival of the W.O.T.W heralds an end to the new dark ages, promising an end to disorder and chaos.

One of the bombers from W.O.T.W. dropping the sleeping gas bombs over Everytown. Source: Things to Come.
Ralph Richardson as ‘The Boss’, ringing the bell in his final act as Warlord of Everytown, as the sleeping gas falls. Source: Things to Come

In the aftermath of the end of this barbarous time, Cabal makes one of those ‘trying-a-bit-too-hard-to-be-inspiring’ speeches followed by another montage. This time, it is the progress of science as the Earth is mined ruthlessly for its hidden resources, leading to the bright new future and featuring giant tracked machines blasting away at the rock.

Two views of the giant tracked mining machines harvesting the wealth of the Earth. Note the use of 6 double-wheel bogies on each side. Source: The Criterion Collection

This future of 2036 is decidedly whiter, cleaner and less Romani-esque than the age before. Cloaks, short shorts, and the same slicked back hairstyles dominate as progress reaches the point where man is to travel to the stars. This journey to the stars is courtesy of a giant gun hundreds of stories high used to launch one man and woman into the future.

The gleaming new underground Everytown of the future. Source: Things to Come
The rather elephantine helicopter in which Oswald Cabal and others reach the Space Gun from the city. Source: Things to Come

Those two characters are the children of Oswald Cabal and Raymond Passworthy and the launching has to be rushed to avoid destruction by the modern anti-science, anti-progress, populist luddites led by an artist called Theotocopulos (played by Cedric (later Sir Cedric) Hardwicke – also a veteran of WW1).

The film ends with the firing of the gun as the angry luddite-mod led by Theotocopulos storms the gun and are presumably killed or otherwise rendered even more senseless by the great concussion of it propelling the new Adam and Eve to the stars to conquer the Moon.

The Space Gun, hundreds of stories high, being loaded via a crane lowering the space capsule into the muzzle. Source: Things to Come

Yet another great speech from Cabal brings the movie to a close and, as sentimental as some of it may seem, the motives expressed were clearly real – a drive for science and progress to never stop, for man to never quit dreaming of the future and greatness, and that humans, as small, feeble, and fragile as they are, can conquer any adversity. Certainly very noble attributes with lofty goals for the film and inspiration for the struggle to come in just a couple of years.

The film itself was well funded, costing over GB£300,000 to produce – this was the equivalent of US$1m in 1933 and in 2021 would be the equivalent of GB£22.8m (US$28.5 m) accounting for inflation. It ‘predicted’ a few things that, in 2021, we take for granted, from helicopters to holographic projection and the flat screen television. It did not, however, predict a good showing at the box office.

Charles Carson (later to serve with ENSA [Entertainment National Service Organisation] in WW2) as ‘The Grandfather’, talking to ‘The Child’ played by Anna McLaren (later a notable biologist). Together, they watch how primitive humans used to live in great vertical cities on the surface on a large flat screen televisual device.
Source: The Criterion Collection

The film was not a commercial success and has lapsed in copyright. It is now in the public domain and can be watched online on a variety of platforms for free, although some versions are of a second rate quality copied from old videos or discs. The Criterion Collection offers a version of DVD with added extras, such as another montage showing the construction of the great underground city, which is not found on other releases.

The ‘Future Tank’

Appearing for just a few seconds during the film, the ‘future tank’ is little more than a model. In other instances, some random ‘tank’ model from a film would garner little interest, more so if it was science fiction. The tank presented in Things to Come, however, stands out. This was not the random thought of a model maker, but a film based on a book written and filmography approved by H. G. Wells. If Wells occupies any position in ideas of armored warfare before WW1, then his interwar idea of a tank must be taken into account in no less detail.

Sadly, with just a few seconds of footage and no substantive description from the book on which the vehicles were based, all that can be gathered as information is from the model as presented (and approved by Wells) in the film.

The Future Tank crushes obstacles in a combat sequence. Source: Things to Come.

From the brief screen appearance, a sleek and rounded vehicle is apparent. Running on a pair of tracks made from what appears to be rubber, the rounded track runs flush to the body, extending out over the sides. The track shape is roughly that of a long obtuse triangle, with the top of the track run as the long side tapering down to ground level to meet the second-longest side which is in contact with the ground. The third side of this triangle is the shortest and creates the attack angle at the front, allowing the vehicle to climb obstacles.

There are no features within the triangle made by these tracks other than the rounded projection of what can be assumed to be armor covering the suspension or drive components which would have been underneath. Between the horns of the tracks, the hull is noticeably heavily rounded and curves down between them without connecting to the front horns of the track. On the front of this rounded front hull is a semi-spherical projection, the prospective function of which is unclear.

With the track horns projecting forwards in a manner reminiscent of the later A.22 Churchill tank, this would indicate that, if this were to be a functional vehicle, then it would have to have the drive components, like sprockets at the back rather than at the front.

The hull, above the tracks, is likewise tapering to the back and is a simple doorstep-wedge shape, albeit heavily rounded and surmounted at the apex of the ‘wedge’ by what appears to be a small round cupola.

On the well-angled right hand side of the upper hull (and presumably duplicated on the left hand side as well) is a large semicircular vent running the full height, from the top of the track to the top of the wedge. It is unclear if this vent is meant to be something for the crew or engine, but the size would indicate that it is more likely intended to convey an air intake for a combustion engine, presumably located within the tapered back half of the tank.

In terms of size, there is little from which to judge the proposed size of this tank other than the landscape scene, where they are driving across fields and the view of it crushing a building. Assuming the model brick building being deployed in the sequence was meant to indicate a normal two story dwelling or shop, this would make the vehicle not much bigger than a ‘normal’ tank of the era, at approximately 4 m high. Assuming the vehicle to be 4 m high, the tank would be around the same width and somewhere around 8 m long.

The dominant feature at the front of the hull is the gun. Like other features, there is nothing to go on other than the model. The primary tank gun for the British Army in 1933, when this film was made, was the 2 pdr. gun. This was an excellent gun for knocking holes in armor and was still in frontline service on some armored vehicles through 1945. It is not, however, the gun on this tank. As shown in the model, the gun is long – projecting maybe a quarter of the height of the vehicle forwards, which would mean a projection of around a meter. It is also substantially larger in terms of bore and barrel thickness and is perhaps meant to convey some kind of heavy howitzer rather than a high-velocity anti-armor gun.

A fleet of Future Tanks sweep across a battered landscape as explosions go off in the background. Source: Things to Come.
A tank takes a hit from an unseen weapon. Source: Things to Come.


Whilst the film itself was not a commercial success, it is a classic pre-war science fiction film in the truest sense of the word, alongside Metropolis (1927). The ‘prediction’ elements of the film are perhaps a little overblown, in the sense that many people in the 1930s could see another war, especially after the rise of Hitler in Germany. Wells perhaps is the most notable of these and, in terms of tanks, the vehicles shown in the film are clearly indicative that, whether or not he felt they were limited (by gas and mines), or some unstoppable leviathans, they would have a place in the forthcoming war. In this, he was undoubtedly correct and, dying in 1946, he got the chance to see this new war run to fruition, not with the collapse of society during a never ending war, but with Victory over Germany and its allies. Further, he got to see the development of tanks as well, and may have taken some satisfaction that the pre-war vehicles (such as the Vickers Medium Mark I) featured in the film, which were unsuitable, were quickly eclipsed and replaced.

Wells (left), seated on the set of Things to Come talking to Pearl Argyle (as Catherine Cabal) and Raymond Massey (as Oswald Cabal) in the future clean, stylish, and well coiffed world of 2036. Source: The Criterion Collection.
Tank from The Shape of Things to Come. Illustration by Pavel Alexe.


Arosteguy, S. (2013). 10 Things I learned: Things to Come, The Criterion Collection
British Film Institute biography of Charles Carson archived at
O’Brien, G. (2013). Things to Come: Whither Mankind?, The Criterian Collection
Stearn, R. (1983). Wells and War. H. G. Wells’s writings on military subjects, before the Great War. The Wellsian New Series No.6, UK.
Stearn, R. (1985). The Temper of an Age. H. G. Wells’ message on war, 1914 to 1936. The Wellsian, Volume 8, UK.
Things to Come at IMDB
Wells, H. (1933) The Shape of Things to Come. Delphi Classics reprint (2015)., UK.

WW1 US Prototypes

Blacksher Armored Automobile

United States of America (1916)
Armored Car – None Built

In 1916, there was one war sucking up all of the attention – the war in Europe, which was seeing the largest European empires battling it out at extreme costs. The USA did not enter the war until April 1917, and, in the meantime, already had a military challenge of its own to contend with – a revolution in Mexico which led to numerous border raids by armed forces. Some armored cars were deployed by the US Army to the border, but one man in southern Alabama also had an idea. His name was Erasmus Blacksher and his vehicle would allow for an armored car with improved mobility and protection over existing designs.

The Man

The man behind this invention was Erasmus Manford Blacksher. Erasmus was a “farmer & financier” from Brewton, a small town in southern Alabama. Born on 4th August 1878 in Boykin, Alabama to Uriah and Martha Blacksher, he was born into a wealthy family, one which had made its money in the timber industry. In 1911, he was a wealthy man and built a grand house called ‘Marinia’ on his family estate known as ‘Alco’. In records, he was giving his occupation as a farmer throughout this time and even beyond WW1. During that war, he, like millions of other men, was required to register for the draft, and he did so in September 1918.

In 1929, following the stock market crash, Blaskher’s family fortunes dwindled, but they still had some notable assets in the area. He died on 23rd April 1957, aged 78 and is buried in Union Cemetery, Brewton.

Between 1915 and 1930, he filed patents for an improved rail tie (1915), an improved airplane (1918), a safety device for an airplane (1930), and this armored automobile. The automobile was filed first in the United states in September 1916, which was then followed by a filing in Canada in July 1917.

Blacksher’s stabilized improved aircraft with additional propellers in the wings to prevent corkscrewing during a nose dive.
Source: Canadian Patent CA193744 of 1918
Erasmus Blacksher pictured around 1900.
Source: Grimes
Blacksher’s Italian-style house in Brewton, Alabama, built in 1911, was known as ‘Marinia’.
Source: The Brewton Standard.
‘Marinia’ pictured in 2015.
Source: The Brewton Standard.



The design of Blacksher’s armored car was a combination of both conventional and unconventional. Conventional in form, unconventional in function and design. Based around a simple four wheeled chassis, the drawing does not show anything more than a simple rectangular vehicular frame and four wheels. However, he was clear in the patent that it should have had some form of steering, although omitted any details of it. There is no mention of any form of propulsion, but, as it was an automobile, it had to be powered by some form of motor or engine. Just as there is no mention of the form of propulsion, there is also no mention of where such an engine might have been placed or what sort of drive train might have been involved. The only hint are the air vents on the roof.

Blacksher’s Armored automobile.
Source: US Patent US1229869
Note: Image has been digitally cleaned.

With a body shape encompassing and completely enclosing the chassis and these 4 main wheels, the vehicle, in plan view, had a distinctive pill-shape with parallel sides and a “rounded contour… modeled as closely as consistent with the shell of a tortoise”. This was the key feature of the patent, which Blacksher described as a “protective casing”. The only large features on this shell was a large rectangular door on the side. Only one side is shown, but another one on the other side would have been a convenient feature for the design.

This armored shell was supported by a series of springs placed all around the body of the vehicle in order to allow for movement of the body and yielding when hit by enemy fire. Each corner of the chassis had a spring connected to the shell, with two more on each side for a total of 8 large springs.

Only the very top of the vehicle was flat in profile, where the upwards curving sides met. Centrally, within the roof of the vehicle, was a fully revolving turret in the shape of “an inverted cup” with a conical or tapering top. The bottom lip of the turret armor was overlapped by the armored body so there were no gaps for bullets to get through. One or more turrets could be added as needed, but Blacksher showed a design with just this single centrally-positioned turret.

Plan view of Blacksher’s Armored Automobile showing the vehicle frame distinct and separate from the armored body and attached by springs.
Source: US Patent US1229869
Note image has been digitally cleaned.


The turret was meant to be supported on wheels mounted to a ring within the turret itself and ran along an annular track. Rotated by a gear wheel, the turret is shown in the drawing to be armed with a single gun. On one side of the turret (it is unclear whether it is in front or behind it) are a couple of funnels, presumably to draw air inside.

Close-up of the overlap between the turret and the outside of the hull armor, as well as the cranking handle to control rotation.
Source: US Patent US1229869
Note image has been digitally cleaned.

These would therefore appear to be what Blacksher described as “air chutes” which were to be “… of light metal so that, if struck by a bullet or the like, they will be pierced without damaging the same so far as their function of ventilation is concerned”. Unfortunately, the positioning and height of them is such that they would likely interfere with the traversing of the main gun.

A third projection is also visible, this time from the apex of the roof of the turret. This projection was a mirrored periscope for observation purposes rather than something for ventilation.

Cross-sectional view of Blacksher’s design showing the deep ‘cup’ shape of the turret and its unusual roofline.
Source: US Patent US1229869
Note image has been digitally cleaned.


The armored body of the vehicle was carried separate to the vehicle itself by means of 6 wheels, with two on each side slightly inwards of the chassis wheels, and one more on the front and back. Arranged around the outside of the armored body were also 6 rollers (3 at each end). These were fitted with springs as well and could move vertically to accommodate undulations in the ground. Arranged in this way, the vehicle would not ground out when traversing rough ground.

Views of the additional rollers and their springs positioned around the edge of the armored body.
Source: US Patent US1229869
Note image has been digitally cleaned.

No engine or even steering system was shown in the plan view, leaving just a plain and simple rectangular frame for the vehicle. In effect, what Blacksher provided therefore was not a specific chassis design but a template on which to mount such an armored body.

In other words, this patent was concerned with the provision of an armored body and turret which could potentially be made and then fitted over a regular truck chassis. This idea would match the location of those air-chutes on the roof, as they would indicate an engine potentially underneath them, suggesting a conventional style of truck layout inside.


No armament is directly indicated in terms of what gun or guns and of what type or size should be mounted. Instead, Blacksher simply provided an impression of the vehicle mounting a single gun inside this turret.

A cross-sectional view of the vehicle and turret provided another view of the gun and an indication that it was not to be a machine gun but potentially a small cannon mounted to a framework and supported from the floor of the ‘cup’ in which the turret was formed.

Source: US Patent US1229869
Amended by the author

Employment and Conclusion

Although Blacksher’s vehicle was never built, it could, at first glance, be supposed to be some idea for service in WW1. Designed in 1916, this would certainly be a possibility, but there is another option as well and one hinted at by the presence of the cacti in the background of his illustration – the US southern border with Mexico.

In 1910, Mexico fell into a civil war, and due to the insecurity which resulted, US armed forces were deployed to the border area to help provide security and prevent Mexican forces from crossing over. There were numerous skirmishes between American and various Mexican rebel groups, and in 1916, these culminated in the famous raid by Pancho Villa into New Mexico, where he attacked the town of Columbus in March. Despite being repulsed by a US Cavalry force, the city was virtually destroyed. It was not the last raid either, as Villa’s forces searched for supplies. In April 1916, they crossed into Texas and raided the towns of Glenn Springs and Boquillas.

Incensed at this incursion, the US Army crossed over into Mexico under the command of General J. Pershing, as part of what was known as the ‘Punitive Expedition’. Operations over the border to secure it continued through 1918, and, although Villa was never caught by US forces, this conflict was a small taste of a mobile hit and run kind of warfare which was becoming possible thanks not only to horses but to trucks – some of which were staring to be armored.

Jeffery Armored Car (Armored Car No.1) deployed to the Mexican-American border by the US Army in 1916 and armed with a pair of machine guns.
Source: Zaloga.
White Armored Car (Armored Car No. 2) deployed to the Mexican-American border by the US Army in 1916.
Source: Zaloga.

It is not hard to see, in light of this conflict on the border, what sort of inspirations might have attracted Blacksher. All the design needed normal truck, a simple armored body and a degree of mobility to fight border banditry. Indeed, in this terrain, perhaps more than the ground of the Western Front in France and Belgium, these armored cars were more capable of off-road movement. At the time Blacksher submitted his patent, the US armed forces were not even involved in WW1, but they were engaged in this operation in the south.

US forces would eventually go to war in Europe and Blacksher got his draft papers completed in 1918. The war ended before he got called up and never got the chance to either see war directly for himself, or see his invention or something similar in action.

Blacksher Armored Automobile. Illustration by hansclaw.
Blacksher Armored Automobile. Illustration by hansclaw.


Blackshear, P. (1954). Blacksheariana. Perry Lynnfield Blackshear, Atlanta, Georgira, USA.
Canadian Patent CA180017, Armoured Automobile, filed 20th July 1917, granted 30th October 1917.
Canadian Patent CA193774, Aeroplane. Filed 9th December 1918, granted 11th November 1919.
French Patent FR501168, Aeroplane, filed 30th June 1919, granted 19th January 1920, published 6th April 1920.
Grimes, L. 2011. Images of America; Brewton and East Brewton. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, USA.
Swiss Patent CH93150, Luftfahrzeug mit vom motor aus autreibbaren stabilisation propellern, filed 13th June 1919, granted 16th February 1922.
The Brewton Standard, Blacksher’s Haunter Legend lives on. 3rd October 2018.
The Brewton Standard. More about the Blacksher’s, 7th April 2004.
US Census 1920, enumeration district 87, Supervisor’s District 2, Sheet 4A.
US Census 1930, enumeration district 27-6, Supervisor District 10, Sheet 23A.
US Draft Registration Card, Erasmus Manford Blacksher, 12th September 1918.
US Patent US1229869, Armored Automobile, filed 26th September 1916, granted 12th June 1917.
US Patent US1147321, Combination cement-tie and rail-clamping means, filed 25th January 1915, granted 20th July 1915.
US Patent US1789033, Safety Appliance for Airplanes, filed 18th February 1930, granted 13th January 1931.
Zaloga, S. Early US Armour: 1915-1940. Osprey Publishing, UK.

Cold War US Prototypes

M998 GLH-L ‘Ground Launched Hellfire – Light’

United States of America (1987-1991)
Missile Tank Destroyer – 5 Built

The AGM-114 ‘Hellfire’ missile was developed by the US Army specifically to counter modern Soviet main battle tanks in a potential clash of superpowers during a Cold War-turned-hot scenario. Thankfully for all concerned, such a conflict did not erupt, the Cold War ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The missile itself is a third-generation anti-tank missile capable of both air-launch (originally from the Advanced Attack Helicopter program by Hughes Aircraft Company) but also from the ground, in a line of development dating back to the late 1960s with the LASAM (LAser Semi Active Missile) and MISTIC (MIssile System Target Illuminator Controlled) programs. By 1969, MYSTIC, the over the horizon laser missile program, had transitioned into a new program known as the ‘Heliborne Laser Fire and Forget Missile’, shortly thereafter renamed ‘Heliborne Launched Fire and Forget Missile’, later shortened to just ‘Hellfire’.

By 1973, the Hellfire was already being offered for procurement by Rockwell International based in Columbus, Ohio and to be manufactured by Martin Marietta Corporation. Somewhat misleadingly, it was still being considered or labelled by some as a ‘fire and forget’ type of weapon.

Procurement and limited manufacturing followed, with the first test firings of the finished product, known as the YAGM-114A, at Redstone Arsenal in September 1978. With some modifications to the infra-red seeker of the missile and Army trials completed in 1981, full scale production began in early 1982. The first units were fielded by the US Army in Europe at the end of 1984. It is worthy of note that, as far back as 1980, the US Army was considering how to leverage the Hellfire onto a ground-launched platform.


Despite occasionally being mislabelled as a fire and forget missile, the Hellfire can, in fact, be used quite differently. Fire and Forget implies that, once the weapon is locked onto a target, it could be fired and then the launch vehicle could retreat to a safe distance or move on to the next target. This was not strictly correct, as the missile also had the ability to have its trajectory changed during flight by up to 20 degrees from the original and up to a 1,000 m each way.

Targeting for the missile was by means of a laser which was projected from a designator, either in the air or on the ground, regardless of from where the missile was launched. An air-launched Hellfire could, for example, be targeted onto an enemy vehicle by a ground designation laser or by other designating aircraft. The missile was not limited to ground targets either, it could also be used to target aircraft, with some emphasis on its ability to counter enemy attack helicopters. Thus, the missile gained a substantial survivability bonus for a launch vehicle, as it did not have to remain in situ and could even be fired from over the horizon, such as over a hill at targets beyond.

The TOW (Tube-launched Optically-tracked, Wire commanded linked) was already available in the US arsenal, but Hellfire offered some things that TOW did not. For example, it had an increased standoff capacity along with an increased range, an increased versatility of use, as the TOW was not suitable for anti-aircraft use, as well as improved physical performance such as armor penetration, explosive blast, and a shorter flight time due to travelling more quickly.

With a continuous laser seeker on the missile following the designation applied, the missile could easily target moving vehicles whilst being harder to intercept or counter (by engaging the launcher).

Improvements in ballistics through the 1980s improved the Hellfire design and the weapon has a maximum effective range quoted as being up to 8 km, with longer ranges being achieved with a reduction in accuracy due mainly to attenuation of the laser beam. Data from the US Department of Defense (D.O.D.), however, provides a maximum direct fire range of 7 km, with indirect fire out to 8 km and a minimum engagement range of 500 m.

The Hellfire missile was first used in anger during the invasion of Panama in December 1989, with 7 missiles being fired, all of which hit their targets.

Basic layout of the Hellfire missile family, showing the 4 sections.
Cutaway view of Hellfire II missile.

Ground Launched Hellfire – Light (GLH-L)

By 1991, the success of the Hellfire was readily apparent, as was the potential it offered to the user. With improved anti-armor capabilities, the Army sought to install Hellfire missiles onto ground vehicles for use, ostensibly by the 9th Infantry Division to complete a concept first considered for the unit back in February 1987. This was a light infantry division and had a specific need for improved anti-armor firepower. In order to achieve this need, the HMMWV was selected to be the mount for these missiles. With a maximum effective range of 7 km, the Hellfire in the ground role extended the anti-armor capacity of the division, especially when it had the ability to be guided onto target remotely by a forward-deployed laser designator known as the Combat Observing Lasing Team (COLT) using a device like the G/VLLD or MULE laser designators. Some US$2 million (US$4.7 million in 2020 values) were allocated by the US Congress within the defence budget for development of this project, with the somewhat ambitious plan to have 36 systems deployed by the 9th Infantry Division within 22 months at an additional cost of $22 million for development and $10.6 million for procurement for a total concept to deliver cost of US$34.6 million (US$82.7 million in 2020 values).

The ambitious time scale for development and delivery of GLH-L to 9th Infantry Division.
Source: US Department of Defense

Development took place on an ‘off-the-shelf’ basis, meaning it used existing hardware and software rather than redesigning a system from scratch. In this case, the system selected as the donor was the hardware from the Swedish shore defence missile program. Funding for the project also came from Sweden, with five vehicles made for trials. Sweden had already been involved in Hellfire since at least 1984, expressing an interest in the system to fill the role of a coastal defence missile. They had already done significant work and were likely trying to sell back some of the technology they had developed for the system, followed by an agreement for deliveries between the two countries in April 1987.

This was a light system for a light mobile force and was operated as the ‘Ground Launched Hellfire – Light’ (GLH-L) program, as a sub-part of a wider GLH program for both light and heavy vehicles.

GLH-L M998 HMMWV during Hellfire firing trials.
Source: AMCOM

The mounts for the GLH-L took the form of the standard cargo-bodied HMMWV vehicle M998. Development was due for completion by 1991 and 5 such vehicles were modified.


The M998 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) was the US Army’s replacement vehicle for the M151 Jeep, entering service in the early 1980s. The vehicle was to fulfill a variety of general and light utility roles but also as a platform to carry unit level equipment. One of those roles was to carry a TOW missile launcher on top and, with that mounting, the vehicle was either the M966, M1036, M1045, or M1046, depending on whether the vehicle had supplemental armor and/or a winch or not.

At over 2.3 tonnes, 4.5 metres long and over 2.1 metres wide, the M998 is roughly the length of a family saloon car but substantially wider and nearly twice the weight. Powered by a 6.2 litre diesel engine, the M998, in its Cargo Configuration, as converted to mount the GLH-L, was capable of up to 100 km/h on a good road.


The vehicles built were sent for testing by TRADOC (US Army Training, Doctrine, and Command) and, with firing trials set to take place at the field laboratory of the Test and Experimentation Command (TEXCOM) at Fort Hunter-Liggett in California in June 1991. However, no orders were even expected for the system. Nonetheless, the firing trials were successful and firing blind over the crest of a hill at a static tank target 3.5 km away saw a missile hit.

This was followed by exercise trials with TOW missile operators from 2nd Battalion, 27th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division crewing the GLH-L vehicles, opposed by crews from the TEXCOM Experimentation Centre (T.E.C.) manning M1A1 Abrams tanks during simulated engagements. The TOW operators received an additional 3 weeks of Hellfire training prior to the exercise from Rockwell Missile Systems International (RMSI). The goal of the exercises was to see if a standard infantry battalion could adequately operate and control the GLH-L under operational conditions, such as deploying them appropriately to engage enemy armor it might encounter.

The only modification from real to simulated operation was the substitution of the laser designator from the standard Ground Laser Designator (G.L.D.) to a lower power and eye-safe system to prevent injury to anyone who got lased. When live-missiles were used, however, the standard GLD was used, although the lock-on for the missiles was set at launch due to the range limitations at play.

Live-firing a Hellfire from the GLH-L M998 HMMWV platform during trials.
Source: Dell

Forty day and night trials were conducted with the two forces, with continual electronic monitoring for later review. Using the GLD for these live fire shoots, an advance team was able to lase the target and radio in for a missile launch, leading to 6 missiles being fired and hitting the target.

Mounted on the roof using a ‘GLH Adaptor Kit’, the vehicle carried 6 missiles in the back, with 2 mounted on the roof, for a total load of 8 missiles.

The Army was considering the idea of this system to equip elements of the 82nd Airborne Division but, once more, with no formal requirement and no production orders, the idea was only that – just an idea.

Ground Launched Hellfire – Heavy (GLH-H)

For heavier vehicles, ones with some built in ballistic protection from enemy fire and more suitable for conventional units, two vehicles were the obvious choice of launch platform for the Hellfire, the Bradley, and the ever-present M113. Operating as Fire Support Team Vehicles (FIST-V), the vehicles would be able to lase an enemy target and attack it directly if they wished, or once more use the remote targeting. This was the Ground Launched Hellfire – Heavy (GLH – H), part of the 16-month long GLH project. That work saw a turret put together and installed as a test on an M901 Improved TOW Vehicle (ITV) variant of the M113. The system was substantially larger than the 2-missile system on the M998, holding 8 missiles in two 4-missile pods on either side of the turret.

That system was also tested and found to be functional, but was not carried forward and received no orders for production.

M113 GLH-H seen during a test launch. Source: Hunnicut


The GLH-L, part of the GLH program, had been supported by the Army and by the Hellfire Project Office (HPO), which had accumulated the work of MICOM Weapons Systems Management Directorate (WSDM) in February 1990. HPO had then followed up on the Hellfire, as it was used in service and was being improved and refined. At the same time, Martin Marietta received a contract for development of the missile, known as the Hellfire Optimised Missile System (HOMS) in March 1990 and both had supported the work on GLH-L. However, in April 1991, HPO was redesignated as the Air-to-Ground Missile Systems (AGMS) Project Management Office, leaving no doubt that official interest seemed to have ended in ground-launched applications in favor of aircraft-launched systems. Indeed, this was just a few months after work on developing the Hellfire missile for the Longbow Apache helicopter had started.

By 1992, HOMS too was gone and its work was simply repurposed as ‘Hellfire II’, which was to finally take the form in the AGM-114K version of the missile. The GLH-H side of things, therefore, was also left out in the cold. There seemed little appetite for a ground launched version of a weapon which was already successful on aircraft and the development work specifically was to focus on airborne use as well.

In recent years however, renewed interest has been shown in a ground launched Hellfire version to replace TOW and upgrade the US military’s ability to strike enemy targets from even further away. In 2010, Boeing, for example, tested the ability of the Avenger turret air defence system to launch Hellfire missiles. This would allow the Hellfire once more to be mounted on light vehicles, like the HMMWV, but also on the LAV and other systems.

However, such systems seeing service seems unlikely, as the Hellfire missile and variants was, as of 2016, destined for replacement by a new missile known as the Joint Air to Ground Missile (J.A.G.M.) as a common missile across all platforms naval, air, and ground.

Pandur 6 x 6 launching a Hellfire missile.
M998 GLH-L ‘Ground Launched Hellfire – Light’. Illustration by hansclaw.

Overview of Hellfire Missile Variants

Designation Model Year Features
Hellfire AGM-114 A, B, & C 1982 – <1992 8 kg shaped charge warhead,
Non programmable,
Semi-active laser homing,
Not effective against ERA,
45 kg / 1.63 m long
AGM-114 B Reduced smoke motor,
Safe Arming Device (SAD) for ship use,
Improved seeker
AGM-114 C Same as AGM-114 B but without SAD
AGM-114 D Digital autopilot,
Not developed
AGM-114 E
‘Interim Hellfire’ AGM-114 F, FA 1991+ 8 kg shaped charged tandem warhead,
Semi-active laser homing,
Effective against ERA,
45 kg / 1.63 m long
AGM-114 G SAD equipped,
Not developed
AGM-114 H Digital autopilot,
Not developed
Hellfire II AGM-114 J ~ 1990 – 1992 9 kg shaped charge tandem warhead,
Semi-active laser homing,
Digital autopilot,
Electronic safety devices,
49 kg / 1.80 m long
Army model,
Not developed
AGM-114 K 1993+ Hardened vs countermeasures
AGM-114 K2 Added insensitive munitions
AGM-114 K2A
(AGM-114 K BF)
Added blast-fragmentation sleeve
Hellfire Longbow AGM-114 L 1995 – 2005 9 kg shaped charge tandem warhead,
Millimeter wave radar (MMW) seeker,
49 kg / 1.80 m long
Hellfire Longbow II AGM-114 M 1998 – 2010 Semi-active laser homing,
For use vs buildings and soft-skinned targets,
Modified SAD,
49 kg / 1.80 m long
Blast fragmentation warhead (BFWH)
Hellfire II (MAC) AGM-114 N 2003 + Metal-Augmented charge (MAC)*
Hellfire II (UAV) AGM-114 P 2003 – 2012 Semi-active laser homing
Shaped charge or blast fragmentation warheads depending on model.
Designed for high altitude UAV use.
49 kg / 1.80 m long
Hellfire II AGM-114 R 2010 + Integrated blast fragmentation sleeve (IBFS),
Multi-platform use,
49 kg / 1.80 m long
AGM-114R9X 2010+?** Inert warhead using mass and cutting blades for low-collateral damage removal of human targets
Note Adapted from US Army Weapons Handbook guide to Hellfire via
* Sometimes referred to as a ‘thermobaric charge’.
** Classified development


Aberdeen Proving Ground. (1992). Ballisticians in War and Peace Volume III: A history of the United States Army Ballistic Research Laboratory 1977-1992. APG, Maryland, USA
AMCOM. Hellfire
Armada International. (1990). US Anti-Tank Missile Developments. Armada Internal February 1990.
Author’s notes from vehicle examination, June 2020 and July 2021
Dell, N. (1991). Laser-guided Hellfire Missile. United States Army Aviation Digest September/October 1991.
GAO. (2016). Defence Acquisitions. GAO-16-329SP
Lange, A. (1998). Getting the most from a lethal missile system. Armor Magazine January-February 1998.
Lockheed Martin. 17th June 2014. Lockheed Martin’s DAGR and Hellfire II missile score direct hits during ground-vehicle launch tests. Press Release
Parsch, A. (2009). Directory of US Military Rockets and Missiles: AGM-114.
Roberts, D., & Capezzuto, R. (1998). Development, Test, and Integration of the AGM-114 Hellfire Missile System and FLIR/LASER on the H-60 Aircraft. Naval Air Systems Command, Maryland, USA Vehicle Mounted Anti-Tank Missiles
Transue, J., & Hansult, C. (1990). The Balanced Technology Initiative, Annual Report to Congress. BTI, Virginia, USA
United States Army. (2012). Hellfire family of missiles. Weapon Systems 2012. Via
United States Army. (1980). The United States Army Logistics Center Historical Summary 1st October 1978 to 30th September 1979. US Army Logistics Center, Fort Lee, Virginia, USA
United States Department of Defense. (1987). Department of Defence Appropriations for 1988.

WW2 German Heavy Tank Prototypes

Eckard Extending Panzer

German Reich (1938-1942)
Heavy Tank – Paper Project

Getting a tank across obstacles is no small task, complicated by a series of factors of the physics of crossing a wall, a step, a river, or a trench. Those matters do not exist in isolation for a military vehicle and the obstacle crossing elements have to be weighed against the military needs, such as protection from enemy fire and being able to effectively deliver fire to the enemy. A long vehicle is better able to cross a wide gap, such as a trench or anti-tank ditch, but may then pay a price in being harder to turn and certainly a price in being a bigger vehicle with more machine to armor, meaning more weight. If, however, the vehicle could be made longer temporarily to cross an obstacle, it would result in having the obstacle-crossing abilities without the vehicle being permanently long. This might have a valuable military development. This is exactly the conclusion Johannes Eckard reached in September 1938, when he submitted his design for an extending track system for a tank to the German government.

The Man

The designer, Johannes Eckard, was from Freiburg im Briesgau in southwest Germany. In 1933, he filed a patent for an opening and locking device for double-glazed windows and, in 1936, another for a type of guide for using a saw. Neither had any obvious military utility, but were followed in September 1938 by an application titled Verlaengerbares Fahrzeug, insbesondere Kampfwagen mit Raupenantrieb (English: Extendable vehicle, especially a caterpillar-powered battle vehicle). The patent was granted for this vehicle over 3 years later, on 30th April 1942, and finally published a few weeks later, in June.

The Design

The vehicle shown in the design was surprisingly, not just a generic ‘tank outline’, and his track invention could not be retrofitted somehow to existing German tanks. In 1938, when he submitted that design, the Wehrmacht’s primary tanks were vehicles such as the Panzer I, Panzer II, and Panzer III, and none of those vehicles were able to be retrofitted with this type of track. The track units were supported from above rather than from the side and all of those existing designs had no substantial structure of the tank above their track units. With no ability to support the weight of a tank from a track guard, it can only be surmised that Eckard’s drawing was not only for his idea of a longer track system, but also of the outline of a tank which might make use of such a system.

Basic outline of Eckard’s tank from the side in its ‘normal’ configuration.
Source: German Patent DE721474. Note that this image has been digitally cleaned by the author.

The basic shape of the hull seen from the side was somewhat rectangular, with a series of longitudinal steps in the side. Face-on, the vehicle body took the form of a ziggurat. The front of the hull was, unusually, raised higher than the rest of the hull, which sloped gently away towards the back end. From a short step on the side, it appears to have been drawn showing a weapon projecting from the side, which would be limited to firing forwards or to an arc across the front and side.

The turret was mounted on a raised section of superstructure that was curved at the front and angled at the rear, sloping very slightly as it rose away from the hull roof. On top of this was the turret, consisting of what appears to be a low and rounded shape, rather like that of Cold War era Soviet tanks. The main armament was mounted in the front of this turret.

In the ‘normal’ position, the tank’s profile was not particularly unusual and appears to have been running on eight road wheels, with an idler and sprocket at the ends of the track. Seen from the front, however, all sense of ‘normalness’ of the design disappears. The hull shape is that ziggurat shape on top and looks more like a space invader in profile, with two ‘arms’ projecting over the sides encompassing the running gear which is attached at the top under the arm. In the center of the hull, the outline provided by Eckard appears to show a completely flat bottom but is, in fact, bellied down between the two track units.

Seen from the front, the outline of Eckard’s design is most unusual. The front view of the track units precludes the idea that this was something which could be retrofitted to existing Panzers.
Source: German Patent DE721474. Note that this image has been digitally altered by the author.

Armor and Armament

Other than what can be assumed from the images, no information is suggested by Eckard about the armament for the tank. The hull seemingly has a machine gun on the left-hand side and, although the right side of the vehicle is not drawn, it can only surmised that the right side of the tank was likewise armed. No weapon is seen projecting from the front of the hull, so armament-wise, if the hull projection was meant to be a machine gun, then the design would be able to provide coverage fire at least forwards and maybe to the side.

It is unclear if these were meant to be fixed firing forwards or if some kind of mounting was considered, as nothing is mentioned in the patent. Given that a fixed machine gun has very little utility, a ball mount or even just a slot, as used on the Grosstraktor, would seem more sensible and likely allowing for an arc of machine gun fire perhaps as much as 45º to the side of each position.

No armament for the turret is mentioned either, but given the 1938 date, it somewhat limits the potential armament options. Logically, this vehicle would be fitted with some short gun and the drawing shows a barrel which has a pronounced wide and narrow part to it. Given the date and style of this gun, it may well be inspired by the Grosstraktor, which used a 75 mm. This would at least be commensurate with both the size of the vehicle and also the clear implication of a potential use for it as a heavier type used in assaults.

The German Grosstraktor was large, lightly armored and heavily armed, with a 75 mm gun. The unusual machine gun protrusion may have served as some inspiration to Eckard nearly a decade after the Grosstraktor work had begun.
Source: Pinterest

Even if the Grosstraktor served as some kind of inspiration for Eckard, the armor likely could not be taken as being along the same lines. The Grosstraktor, for example, had surprisingly thin plating, 14 mm at its thickest, which was less than a WW1 British tank and barely bulletproof even when made out of good quality armor plate. In 1938, and certainly by 1942, for Eckard, such flimsy levels of protection were woefully inadequate even for small light tanks, such as the Panzer II with up to 15 mm, or the early Panzer III. The growth in protection on the Panzer III is perhaps the better example of what the armor should have been. By the early years of the war, this reached 30 mm and then 50 mm thick. This was enough to provide greater protection from enemy small arms and armor piercing bullets, but not anti-tank guns. Certainly, the side plates overhanging the tracks on Eckard’s design provide the appearance of a well protected vehicle.


As with the other features, no mention by Eckard was made of a crew for such a vehicle. Assuming the vehicle would eventually look roughly like what he drew if it had reached the stage of being built, then presumably it would need a driver and a commander, along with a crew member on each of the sides to operate the machine gun and at least one more to load and fire the gun. This would mean a crew of at least 5, and, if a loader was added, 6.

No indication occurred in the design for where the crew might even go but, logically, this would be the driver in the front, hull gunners on the sides, and the loader, gunner, and commander in the turret.


No suitable engine was discussed let alone suggested by Eckard for a vehicle of this type, as his primary focus was simply on the track system. There is no clear indication as to where the engine might be located. Nor is there an indication as to where the drive sprocket might be located on the design, although this would have to be at one end or another of the primary track.

Tracks and Suspension

The primary part of Eckard’s design was the track and suspension. This consisted of a top-supported track run of 8 road wheels as the ‘normal’ part of the track. Rigidly attached vertically to the overhang of the hull, the track unit itself had absolutely no sprung suspension drawn although, presumably, with rubber tyres on the wheels, there would be some cushioning effect. The speed of such a vehicle would therefore likely be fairly low, perhaps as little as 10 – 15 km/h. Beyond this, the vibrations and noise would make the vehicle hard to operate and create a lot of wear and tear on the automotive elements and crew.

On each side of this primary track run, there was an additional length of track formed around a hollow box work, with small road wheels fastened without suspension on the top and bottom. Thus, on each side of Eckard’s design, there were three full length track runs, with the center part with the large road wheels and with the small-wheel track units sandwiching it. Those side units were also suspended slightly above the level of the bottom of the center (primary) track unit, meaning that, on a hard surface, only those center tracks would be in contact with the ground. Traveling over soft ground, where the vehicle would sink a little, those side track units would come into contact with the ground and help to share the weight of the vehicle. It is unclear, however, if those supplementary tracks would be driveable in such circumstances or just act to spread the weight and rotate with the passage of the tank.

For all three sections of track on each side, the actual links appear to be very narrow, so that added together, the width of all three is more akin to a normal wider style of track. They had to be narrow to fit under each wing of the design.

Seen from the front, Eckard’s design is completely dominated by these enormous triple track units.
Source: German Patent DE721474. Note that this image has been digitally cleaned by the author.

The clever part of Eckard’s design was not that these three units could work in this manner to spread the weight when on a soft surface, but that they could extend. These side units were attached to the center unit by means of a large pin, around which the boxwork part of the supplementary tracks sat. In the event of the tank having to cross a gap which it otherwise could not in its own length, then the exterior track would be thrust forwards whilst simultaneously the inner track was thrust to the rear. The amount of movement for the track was not fixed, but could be varied as required. Thus, over rough ground, it might be extended a little to cross the bumps, but when crossing wide gaps, the full length could be employed.

Close up of the triple track unit designed by Eckard to increase mobility. During normal running, the narrow center track takes the load. On a softer surface, the load is spread to all three tracks. When crossing an obstacle, the two side tracks can be extended out, moving in opposite directions, to increase the length of the vehicle.
Source: German Patent DE721474. Note that this image has been digitally cleaned by the author.

This method allowed the vehicle to more than double its length in what would be three independent lengths of track. Here, it must be assumed that the supports for these track runs were both very substantial constructions and driven in some manner, as there is a conceivable risk that crossing a gap of roughly the original length of the vehicle could leave the tank itself completely suspended between both ends of the track and otherwise completely unable to free itself as the center (driven) track would be turning in thin air.

Eckard’s design operating with the tracks slightly lengthened whilst traversing bumpy ground.
Source: German Patent DE721474. Note that this image has been digitally cleaned by the author.
Eckard’s design traversing a complex double gap with the track units fully extended.
Source: German Patent DE721474. Note that this image has been digitally altered by the author.
Eckard’s design traversing a slope with a double gap and with the tracks fully extended. Over such terrain, the tracks would act as a counterbalance to the tank to help keep it stable.
Source: German Patent DE721474. Note that this image has been digitally altered by the author.

Whether that possibility had occurred to Eckard is unknown or perhaps he was simply trying to think around the problem of making the tank long enough for just enough time to cross a gap. Either way, this was a substantial flaw or critique of his work and, other than the sheer complexity of making such a vehicle, if it were unable to perform the primary role for which it was intended, it would be useless.


As discussed, the track system offered a substantial potential advantage. In theory, a 6 m long tank would be able to cross just under half its length under normal circumstances, ~ 2.5 – 3 m. Faced with a gap 5 m wide, it would have to use bridging or a fascine of some sort. To cross such a gap, a tank would have to be over 11 m long and, other than crossing the gap, this length might be a hindrance for both shipping it and maneuverability on the battlefield. What Eckard offered was a potential way to make a tank which could be a ‘normal’ size for all other purposes and extra-long for those occasions when a wide gap needed to be crossed. What he designed, however, was a solution far too complex and unable to be retrofitted to existing vehicles, meaning a whole new tank would be needed right as Germany was reaching the peak of its power in WW2. There was simply no need for this vehicle, as there were no enormous obstacles for the Army to cross and anti-tank ditches or trenches they might need to cross were more easily handled with bridging equipment.

What became of Eckard is not known but, presumably, with this design not progressing or finding any interest from the authorities, he went back to his other engineering ideas. No examples of his tank or of a system like this are known to have been built or operated.

Eckard Extending Panzer as illustrated by Pavel Alexe, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Specifications Eckard’s Extending Panzer

Crew est. 5 – 6 (driver, hull gunner x 2 , loader, gunner, commander)
Dimensions u/k
Engine u/k
Speed est. 10 – 15 km/h
Armor est. 30 mm or more
Armament 2 x machine guns in the hull, primary armament in turret


German Patent DE628524, Kupplungs- und Feststellvorrichtung fuer Doppelfenster, filed 15th February 1933, granted 26th March 1936, published 6th April 1936.
Swiss Patent CH189205, Laubsägebogen, filed 1st May 1937, granted 28th January 1936, published 15th February 1937.
German Patent DE721474, Verlaengerbares Fahrzeug, insbesondere Kampfwagen mit Raupenantrieb, filed 24th September 1938, granted 30th April 1942, published 6th June 1942.

WW2 British Prototypes

Arthur Janser’s 500-ton Battleship and Grasshopper Tanks

United Kingdom (1940)
Land Battleship and Leaping Tank – None Built

The United Kingdom declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland in September 1939. When it did so, there was a sudden realization among many that the country was in yet another major war in Europe against the same enemy they had fought just a generation beforehand. That previous war had been seared into the collective psyche of the nation as one characterized by almost unimaginable and unrelenting slaughter in the mud and trenches of the Western Front – a situation summed up too simply (but commonly) as one ended by the appearance of a new weapon known as the tank.

Faced with a new war, many in Britain foresaw a war fought along similar lines and one which would need new heavy tanks to smash through the German defensive lines, like the Siegfried Line. An official program had started in late 1939 under the auspices of the Special Vehicle Development Committee (S.V.D.C.), but this was by no means the end of ideas. Many inventive and scientific minds would also consider this and other problems associated with the war to come in this uneasy period from September 1939 and the start of the German campaign in the West in May 1940. Known as the ‘Phoney War’, it provided a brief window into the thinking behind some of these ideas for a war which had yet to start in earnest for Britain.

“Too much thought is being given to armies and man-power. This war will be won by the engineer and the scientist”

—Dr. Arthur Janser quoted 23rd April 1940.

Arthur Janser

The man behind this 500-ton tank idea was Arthur Magnus John Janser. Janser is somewhat enigmatic and, although he is known to have come from Austria (with a date of birth recorded many years later in England as 17th June 1903), the chain of events which led to him being in Britain in 1940 are less than clear. An expert chemist, Janser, or ‘Dr. Janser’, as he is often referred to, thankfully submitted several patents in his lifetime, which provide some insight into his life pre-1940. Janser submitted his first patent in 1925 in Vienna (Austria) followed by another at the same time in Berlin-Charlottenburg, Germany. By 1934, he was in Paris, and by 1936, he was in London.

“Mr. Janser is a monarchist…being Viennese, [he] gave us some great inside dope on how the Nazis were confining his friend Sigmund Freud, the great psychologist”

—Memoirs of William ‘Bill’ Temple (2013).

He is described at times as an Austrian refugee and this is likely correct given the Anschluss ended Austria as an independent state in March 1938. By 1936, however, living in London, he managed to become engaged with a group of amateur (but by no means amateurish) scientists known as the British Interplanetary Society (B.I.S.). Formed in Liverpool in 1933, the B.I.S. expanded to London in 1936.

The British Interplanetary Society

Janser’s knowledge and skills as a chemist were much needed by the B.I.S., where he would propose solid rocket fuel motors for their various space rocket ideas. Other members of the B.I.S. included:

  • Arthur C. Clarke (astronomer and noted science fiction author post-war),
  • D. W. F. Mayer, H. Bramhill (draughtsman),
  • Jack Happian Edwards (Head of the Technical Committee and Director of an Electronics firm),
  • Ralph A. Smith (artist and engineer – his son later worked on the Apollo programme),
  • Maurice K. Hanson (mathematician and payload specialist),
  • William F. Temple,
  • S. Klementaski (biologist),
  • H. E. Ross (electrical engineer and man behind Project Megaroc in 1946 to adapt a German V-2 into a pilot carrying rocket),
  • J. H. Edwards (research director),
  • Eric Burgess (a writer, founder of the B.I.S., and a NASA consultant after the war),
  • H. E. Turner (editor of the Manchester Interplanetary Society magazine), and
  • A. Val Cleaver (aircraft engineer and Chief Engineer for Rolls-Royce rocket division).

Some of the meetings of this group were even held in Janser’s flat.

“A middle aged foreigner, Mr. Janser, a research chemist (who said he’d made a lifetime study of atoms) was smiling to himself most of the time, occasionally making dry comments, superiorly on his pinnacle of knowledge of the slow, lengthy, laborious & patient research necessary even to project a rocket into the stratosphere”

—Diary entry of William ‘Bill’ Temple, 10th November 1936.
Photograph of B.I.S. members at the inaugural meeting in 1936 in London. Professor A. M. Low is in the center at the front. Janser is in the back. A red dot has been placed above him to identify him in this photograph.
Source: Burgess

Janser, along with several other members of the BIS, were also a keen followers of Science Fiction literature (including Arthur C. Clarke), attending a convention held in London April 1938 on the subject of space travel. Janser did not attend the 1939 convention, although Clarke did, perhaps indicating that Janser was less interested in science-fiction stories than he was in the science-realities behind them.

“Mr. Janser is a many-sided genius. He has a bookcase which covers an entire wall, and it is full of books on every aperture of science, from chemistry to psychology, from astronomy to Biology”</blockquote>

—Memoirs of William ‘Bill’ Temple (2013).

Janser’s primary contribution to the B.I.S. was his proposal for solid propellant arranged in a cellular manner to produce enough thrust to propel a rocket to the moon. To this end, according to H. E. Ross, Janser produced between 80 and 120 possible propellant combinations for rocket fuels.

Members of the British Interplanetary Society meeting in London (probably at the B.I.S. convention) in 1938.
Left to right: J. H. Edwards, Eric Burgess, H. E. Turner, Midshipman C. Truax (USN), R.A. Smith, M. K. Hanson, and Arthur C. Clark.
Source: National Air and Space Museum

Although the B.I.S. members, consisting of about a dozen scientific experts, were not the first to consider rockets or space travel, they were the first to do so in such a systematic and thoughtful way. The Technical Committee of the B.I.S. considered each and every aspect of what it might take to put a man into space one step at a time, 30 years before the Apollo missions.

“Item Two of the agenda: the composition of a very light but efficient battery to heat the space-ship. Here Messrs. Edward and Janser started an argument on such a highly technical plane that I just sat there between them, agape, and the stream of words passing over my head like a beautiful rainbow. I gathered it was something about conductivity values. Arthur Clarke made occasional interjections which might or might not have been to the point, but at any rate showed us that Arthur grasped what was going on… It all ended with Mr. Janser promising to hunt through his books (all 2,000 of them) to find certain tables, and perhaps consult the National Physical Laboratory on this important subject…”

—Memoirs of Bill Temple (2013) recounting a meeting of the B.I.S. Technical Committee before the war in Janser’s flat.

Between them, they were a group of men covering a wide range of scientific abilities, and Janser, amongst them, was clearly considered to be one of the luminaries of the group’s most technical elements – rocket propulsion. Just before the war, this team had finished their design for a solid-fuel type rocket capable of reaching and landing on the moon.

The 1938 B.I.S. Moonship and lander – the culmination of the pre-WW2 work by the B.I.S.
Source: British Interplanetary Society

With the declaration of war in September 1939, the society was disbanded shortly afterwards, for the duration of the conflict. Many of those in the BIS ended up in uniform during the war. Janser, as an Austrian citizen, did not. Born in 1903 (his marriage certificate says 1904), he would have been in his late 30s at the outbreak of war and, at this time, many foreign nationals were detained for national security reasons. Many were shipped off to the Isle of Man, and, later, after security vetting, returned to their lives in Britain.

Barricading the Sky

It was whilst working with the B.I.S. that Janser would also meet with famous inventor Grindell Matthews (another member) to provide advice on rocket fuel. Matthews was working on his anti-aircraft rockets which carried a small explosive charge and which pulled a wire behind them to ensnare and destroy enemy aircraft.

Matthews appears to have been inspired by a speech by Sir Kingsley Wood (the Secretary of State for the Air) who had called for an inventor who could devise a way of “mining the skies” as protection against enemy aircraft. Janser wrote about these ideas in November 1939 with the title of “Barricading the Skies”. In the article, Janser discussed several ideas which had been put forth, including a barrage balloon filled with explosive gasses and tethered with electrified cables, electrified clouds, special clouds made from artificial poison gasses to choke the engines of aircraft, and even an all-metal airship replete with artillery.

“Mr. Janser comes around… [for a ‘jabber’]… He indicates that he is working on a new sort of ‘death ray’ & Grindell Matthews is also aiding and abetting him”

—Diary entry of William ‘Bill’ Temple, 22nd October 1939.

It would be Matthews’ rockets which, along with the standard barrage balloons, provided the answer to Wood’s question of protection of the sky. Matthew’s rockets, assisted by Janser’s rocket knowledge, would go on to see service during the war as ‘Parachute and Cable’ devices, bringing Janser’s ‘Barricade in the Sky’ article to reality.

The PAC rocket was a simple and effective anti-aircraft device.
Source: Secret Projects Forum

“Janser told me [Bill Temple] it’s possible we may get a grant of £200 to help Grindell Matthews with his ‘Defence’ research work. Janser said the German military men already had an explsoive rocket which could be fired about 5 or 6 kilometres with more accuracy than a shell & were developing it rapidly. I said we may expect them one day to be coming over the channel”

—Diary entry of William ‘Bill’ Temple, 4th May 1937.

Other Activities

In April 1939, Janser was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London, which allowed him to put ‘F.R.A.S.’ (Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts) after his name. His biography in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society also shows him with F.C.S., and F.C.I.S. after his name, although it is unclear exactly to what these refer. However, F.C.S. is likely for a Fellow of the Chemical Society (the forerunner to the Royal Society of Chemistry) and F.C.I.S. may be in relation to being a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries.

By November 1939, Janser is known to have been living at 28 Great Ormond Street, London from his patent, but he is also recorded with an address in Holburn as well (today, this address is opposite the world famous Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital).

Other Arms

It is in consideration of Janser’s background, his genius, and his abilities, as well as his writings, such as those in newspapers in this period, that his tank concept makes sense. Janser would write a series of guides for the common person to help them to understand the inventions and ideas being bandied around in relation to the war, such as Matthews’ Death Ray. These appeared in ‘Guide and Ideas’ published weekly as a light hearted edition, with such articles as the secret life of showgirls and then, with Janser, some serious articles as well.

In this light and with war having broken out, he would find himself as an Austrian, an alien from a hostile country clearly trying to not only solve a technical problem, but also show his loyalty to the UK. Many such aliens were taken away, interned for reasons of national security and then progressively released. Janser appears to have been caught up in this and was interned on 25th April 1940. Interestingly, his internment ceased on 16th October 1940, and he was exempt from further internment. This was presumably because he was working for H.M. Arsenal in Woolwich at the time and they needed his expertise, but also marks the softening of the hard-line approach by Winston Churchill, which had previously ordered all foreign nationals detained as a possible security risk.

His tank concept was not lengthy or perhaps not particularly well considered. It did, however, reflect much of the concerns of the time about a war stuck between the French Maginot Line and the German Siegfried Line.

The Enormous Tank

In spring 1940, Janser was to write and espouse the need to rethink the trend of small and lightly armored tanks. Something much bigger, much stronger, more powerful, and much better protected than ever before was going to be needed. He declared that “recent advances in metallurgical research” allowed for the construction of tanks not just bigger than those in service, but bigger than those which had ever been in service before or since.

To make use of this knowledge, Janser suggested a tank of up to 500 tons could be built, protected by armor as thick as that on a battleship (30 cm or more) “mounting siege guns which fire special concrete breaking shells”. Assuming for a moment that advances in metallurgy were really such that new armor could be more powerful, then this would be a level of protection technically beyond that of a battleship. What he called “double-strength” steel was to be used and made with minerals unavailable in Germany. This new armor would effectively render it indestructible to enemy fire and unmatched on the battlefield.

What it really represented, was a totally unnecessary level of protection to guard against any possible threat from enemy guns. It was also a preposterous statement indicative either of someone trying to make a point merely about the level of protection (that of an indestructible vehicle), or simply that he did not have a clue what he was talking about in terms of armored vehicles, or maybe a bit of both.

He was, in spring 1940, simply repeating the same sort of thoughts and concerns of some in the upper echelons of the British military, in terms of thinking of bigger tanks to smash the Siegfried Line and specifically the concrete bunkers along it. What he did, however, was to go beyond ever their wildest fever-induced dreams of giant tanks. Janser produced a vision of a vehicle gliding over enemy tank traps and defensive works with impunity:

“A tank of five hundred tons built of this double-strength steel would sail serenely over tank traps and be impervious to land-mines. Ferro-concrete booby traps would crumple under its advancing caterpillars”

He may well have been correct in assessing that a tank of such weight might, simply by virtue of its great weight, crush beneath its tracks the sort of reinforced concrete structures arrayed before it in defensive lines. What he missed, however, is that the same weight of machine would undoubtedly perform the same task on the way to the front itself, destroying its own sides’ bridges, roads, and railways as it went.

Nonetheless, this 500-ton tank idea was certainly the right ‘scale’ of number to garner press coverage as far afield as Australia.

“Dr. Arthur Janser, famous Austrian research chemist now a refugee in England, believed that the Siegfried Line can be smashed. But new weapons and new types of ammunition are wanted..”

When Janser, in spring 1940, mentioned the need for new weapons and ammunition to fight the war, he was, of course, correct. The ‘500-ton’ tank may simply have served as a literary device to get attention to his call and he continued the description of his idea to reinforce the point.

Not only was this monstrous machine to be ludicrously heavy (more than two and a half times the weight of the heaviest tank ever made – the German Maus), but also armed with a siege gun. The standard British siege guns of the era were the BL 60-pounder (5 inch) and BL 9.2” howitzer. Both of these guns dated to WW1 or before and could fire large high-explosive shells weighing 27 and 130 kg out to a range of more than 9 km. Certainly, both guns would provide a phenomenal amount of firepower for such a tank and, given an overall weight of 500-tons, the size and weight of the guns became a moot point. Janser, to enhance the power of the siege guns, also proposed new and special anti-concrete shells which could thus shatter the German ferro-concrete bunkers, dragon’s teeth, and barriers of the Siegfried Line.

Janser did not elaborate further on his 500-ton tank idea but, assuming that 500-tons was a real prospective weight and not just something to engage the reader in consideration of new larger tanks, then it would need an engine. The largest tank built in Britain during the war was in the region of 80 tons and powered by a 600 hp engine, delivering around 7.5 hp/ton. Assuming an equivalent power to weight ratio was needed for this machine, Janser would have required engine/s capable of delivering 3,750 hp. This would have been well beyond any road-vehicle of the era and putting it squarely in the territory of power plants from either a ship or a locomotive.

Robot Soldiers

If the 500-ton tank idea was just a bit too much of a step into left field, and a ‘miss’ for the futuristic leanings of Janser, then his second point was spot on, albeit several decades too early.

Following on from this call for a new better armed and armored species of giant tank, Janser also proposed that to beat the Germans, more ‘robot-soldiers’ would be needed. By this, he was referring to his knowledge (from where he did not state) that the Germans and Czechoslovaks had, before the war, “exploited the possibilities of automatic machine-guns and the remote control of guns”.

The modern reader may be a little perplexed as to how a remotely operated gun is conflated with the word ‘robot’. In the 1940s, a ‘robot’ was simply a term being applied to not only a sort of shiny metallic humanoid, but also what today is considered more of a drone or remotely separately weapon of some description. A notable example of this term was the famous V-1 flying bomb being referred to in WW2 as ‘Robot Bombs’.

Any disappointment at the lack of a 1940s-era Cyberman concept, however, is quickly dispelled as Janser describes “robot soldiers armed with machine-guns or grenade-throwing apparatus and controlled by beam radio”, so whether he really thought of mechanical men or just drone vehicles is unclear. The use of drone vehicles is, of course, not a modern phenomenon, but the mass use of drones and unmanned ground combat vehicles is on the rise, albeit 80 years after he mentioned it. Just like then too, the issues of radio control being jammed or intercepted was a concern, and Janser stated:

“Even enemy jamming of the wireless waves could not put the robots out of action”

This rather vague additional line implied at least some level of direct control, so it possible that it was yet another simple rhetorical device to make his readers ponder the problems. Perhaps too, it was an acceptance of the limitations on a fully remote system and a tacit acknowledgement that the robot vehicle would still need a human crew member, with its weapons operating remotely instead. Either way, unfortunately, he chose not to expand on the idea.

The Grasshopper

The final of Janser’s three tank–related concepts was for a grasshopper tank. This was not a tank built to look like a grasshopper, but one which could, conceivably, be used as an alternative to driving-over and crushing obstacles, by simply leaping over them. In this part, Janser chose once more to bemoan the small light tanks in service and felt that some special war machine of this type, might, instead, be able to move quickly from place to place by jumping.

Oddly, for rather ill-considered or technically improbable idea, the Grasshopper idea was a real plan in Australia in 1944, although one unlikely to have been directly inspired by Janser’s call. Not only that, but back in the UK, there were also experiments with the use of rockets to ‘leap’ a vehicle over an obstacle or from the mud in which it had become stuck. No doubt Janser, being a rocket fuel enthusiast, would have approved in general terms of the idea of combining rockets and tanks, although the outcome was less than successful.

Before and after of experiments with a Universal Carrier and rockets – not an optimal outcome.
Source: Pinterest


What can be made from Janser’s work on tanks? Was he really serious about a 500-ton or even a Grasshopper tank? The answer is ‘probably not’. Both such ideas were well within the common frame of science fiction, and, whilst he was not a writer himself, he did attend at least one convention and spent a lot of time with men very much in the sci-fi field and who wrote stories on it. Perhaps their influence rubbed off a little and, combined with the literary technique of what might be closely related to modern ‘clickbait’, Janser grabbed his readers’ attention with a ‘500-ton tank’. For the same reason that a 400-ton tank would be not less equally ridiculous but not hit the same attention-grabbing mark, Janser’s point was nonetheless clear.

Britain had, in general terms in 1939 and 1940, tanks which were in his opinion on the whole too small, too lightly armed, and too lightly armored. In specific terms, even the best of these tanks, the A.12 Matilda, which had a good level of protection, was still utterly unsuitable to lead a charge breaching the Siegfried Line to carry the war into the heart of Germany. Janser was not alone in that view, and various other projects and ideas were espoused at the end of 1939 through into 1940 for similarly large and heavy assault vehicles.

Unlike some of the wacky ideas of random members of the public and the occasional tweed-jacketed home inventor, Janser had a significant level of skill and knowledge in rockets and chemistry. This did not translate directly to tanks, but he continued his work and writing through the end of the war.

On a personal note, despite having applied for naturalization in July/August 1939, Janser was not naturalized until May 1947, at which time he was already married to Thora Ruby Christian Janser. He also became a fellow of the Physical Society in 1947 and had also been elected as a member of the Royal Society of Mechanical Engineers.

He would remain in London and continue his work as a “Research and Consulting Chemist” with an address of 3 Edgeware House, Chapel Street in May 1947, and in 1958, he provided the introduction to a book on past-life regression through hypnosis. Janser died in London in 1964, aged 58. His wife, Thora ‘Ruby’ Christian Raymonde (or Fairbairn), whom he married in Westminster in 1942, survived him and died in 1990.

The B.I.S. would continue its work too and is still going to this day, working on the problems of space travel and life on other planets. The author wishes to express his gratitude to the B.I.S. for their assistance in preparing this article.

—Work of the BIS on Pathe in 1947.

Specifications Janser’s 500-ton tank

Crew u/k
Dimensions u/k
Weight 500-tons
Armor ‘battleship’ levels of improved steel
Armament ‘Siege’ guns
Engine u/k
Speed u/k
Propulsion tracks


Aberdeen Journal, ‘Barricading the skies may be next development’, 23rd November 1939.
Auckland Star, Volume LXXI, Issue 96, 23rd April 1940. ‘Monster Tanks and Robot Troops to smash Siegfried Line: Austrian Chemists’s Plan.
Austrian Patent AT141130, ‘Verfahren zur Herstellung fein verteilter, technische verwendbaraer Pigmente aus Eisenverbidungen’ filed 26th April 1933, granted 15th November 1934.
Bloxham, D. (1958). Who was Ann Ockenden. Neville Spearman Pub.
British Patent GB521718, ‘Shellac modifications’, filed 23rd November 1939, granted 29th May 1940.
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Cairns Post 29th March 1940 ‘Siegfried Line can be smashed’.
England and Wales Death Registration Index 1837-2007. Volume 5c, Page 1003m.
England and Wales Death Registration Index 1837-2007. Volume 17, Page 82.
England and Wales Marriage Registration Index 1837-2005. 1942, Q2, Vol 1A, P.112: Westminster Street.
French Patent FR771057, ‘Procede de preparation de pigments colores, a base de fer’, filed 23rd June 1933, granted 16th July 1934, published 29th September 1934.
French Patent FR771056, ‘Procede de preparation d’un succedane du linoleum ou de la toile ciree’, filed 23rd June 1933, granted 16th July 1934, published 29th September 1934.
French Patent FR781763, ‘Proceded de fabrication de cartons et de papiers ayant des properties de la nature de la fibre vulcanisee’. Filed 12th February 1934, granted 4th March 1935. Published 22nd May 1935.
German Patent DE454831, ‘Kuntsmasse’, failed 9th April 1925, granted 18th January 1928.
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Northern Star 9th April 1940 ‘Siegfried Line can be smashed’.
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Westminster Marriages 1942.

WW1 US Prototypes

Lauterbur’s Tractor

United States of America (1918)
Tank – None Built

At the start of 1918, WW1 was by no means waning in terms of combat or intensity. The war had, to that point, been characterized in the public mindset by the slaughter in Belgium and France. This picture was one of trench lines of men just a few hundred meters apart, unable to make the breakthrough they needed thanks to defenses in depth, barbed wire, and the firepower of the modern machine gun. Tanks, as unveiled on the battlefield in September 1916, had begun to make a real difference in the war. The armies of Germany, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, and Italy were tired by 1918. Russia had dropped out of the war, but the United States, a relatively youthful imperial power, was coming to the war in its place, having declared war in April 1917. Despite this, the US forces headed for Europe did not get to see combat for over a year, first seeing action at Cantigny in May 1918. That year was the first year the US forces got their first tanks too, but those did not get used until the last few weeks of the shooting war, in September 1918. There was therefore a gap between the first tanks of 1916, America’s war entry, and their first tank use. A few inventors and designers came to this American tank void. Some of them had an engineering background, or a military background, or both. One of them, Frank Lauterbur, designed machines relating to the mixing and baking of bread dough – he too designed a tank. A tank more like a rolling pin than one of 1916, but undoubtedly an armored rolling weapon of war.

Mr. X.

The man behind this machine was Francis ‘Frank’ Xavier Lauterbur from the town of Sidney, Ohio, USA. Lauterbur was born in August 1887 at Fort Laramaie in Ohio, to Paul (b.1855, d.1932) and Margarettia ‘Margaret’ (neé Hillans) Lauterbur (b.1859, d.1925). This meant that, when he filed his patent for his ‘Tractor’ on 6th February 1918, he was around 31 years old, putting him at the upper end of the age group liable for conscription to go and fight in the war.*

(*The first conscription under the Selective Service Act of 1917 was 5th June 1917 for all men aged between 21 and 31 – he would have been 29 or 30 years old at the time).

Lauterbur died in October 1932, aged just 45 years old, leaving his wife Wilhelmina (b.1900, d. 1970). Between 1918 and when he passed away in 1932, Lauterbur left a legacy of over 50 patents for machines relating to the mixing of dough, involving variously beaters and clutches, variable speed rotating members, sieves and sifting, weighing and blending. Whilst the flour mixing or bread industry might not seem like a likely source from which a tank might originate, the mechanisms designed for transmitting torque to a mixer, belts, pulleys, and drive are not small things in engineering terms. Such knowledge and skills in engineering relatively mundane or non-military equipment certainly would have left Lauterbur with more than a passing knowledge of technology when he designed this vehicle. His intention was to produce a “small ‘tank’ for military purposes and adapted to operate either as a unicycle or as a tractor”.

Composite image digitally manipulated from US Patent US1313095 to show the complete frontal view of Lauterbur’s design.
Composited image digitally manipulated from US Patent US1313095 to show the complete frontal view of Lauterbur’s design as a 4-wheel vehicle.

The Rolling Pin

The design was to be built around the concept of a rolling cylinder, like a rolling pin. This cylinder would be either a pair of what he called “tractor wheels” or, in extended form, made from four or more of these wheels. They were not tractor wheels in the sense of a normal farmer’s tractor, but wide hollow wheels running around the outside of the cylinder on low-friction bearings and to the surface of which were a series of 3 circumferential rows of spikes. These spikes formed the tractive element of the wheels, as they would be stabbed into the ground during travel to provide purchase on whatever surface it was passing over.

This would also, therefore, mean the vehicle would cause potential damage to roads or other fixed infrastructure on route towards a battle, something which would be a problem for any conventional forces which may be following.

The vehicle itself was this simple cylinder about which the wheels rotated and the rounded ends both featured a single hinged door with a horizontal slot in it from which the crew could see out. A further such slot was located in the center of the cylinder, facing forwards, and was situated directly between the center two of the tractor wheels.

Atop the machine was a single large periscope reminiscent of an alpine horn more than anything from a submarine and which formed the primary means of observation for the vehicle. Whilst this would provide a theoretical 360º of view for the man operating it, it would obviously also limit observation by other members of the crew to those three slots already mentioned. Within those slots too were to be machine guns, forming the primary armament, so they would already be quite occupied with combat as well as being a good distance from the man at the bottom of the telescope, presumably the commander, to tell them what was going on, making internal communications and direction more difficult. Assuming one commander using that periscope and one man per machine gun, this would be 4 men and, adding in a dedicated driver, would mean not less than 5 men would be required to operate such a machine.

Behind the rolling pin was a trailing wheel arrangement to provide support. This wheel was fastened to a tail coming from the back of the cylinder but attached to a pair of separately rotating collars, narrower than the wheels but wider than the cylinder. These collars could therefore rotate freely without blocking the weapons or observation devices, forming a hollow in the tail to clear the periscope and allow controlled rotation of the tail around the machine.


The engine for propelling this machine was to be located low down in the central part of it, which was also roughly where the periscope was as well. Drive was transmitted via a shaft to a large gear wheel, which was connected in turn to a smaller gear wheel via a drive chain around a small rim projecting from the large gear to the small one and holding them a fixed distance apart. This connection on the shaft of the large gear was also a pivot point around which the smaller gear could move via rotation of this arm. Thus, the drive shaft could still be rotating in the same direction and could still be driving the big gear and small gear in turn, but with the arm pivoted behind the big gear, it would cause drive to imparted backwards upon the wheel. By this method, no complex gearing was needed from the shaft or gearbox and steering or rotating the vehicle on the spot could be achieved by switching from forward to rear motion on an individual wheel or side of the machine.

The steering system for the machine involved a simple small gear on a pivoting arm, allowing forward motion to be turned into reversing motion by rotating the arm rather than reversing the direction of rotation of the driveshaft.
Source: US Patent US1313095

This small arrangement by which an arm could be rotated around a center-pivot point was a key feature of the design not only for steering via these gears, but also for obstacle climbing. This function was achieved with a much bigger rotating arm, namely the ‘arm’ which was the tail of the machine. More than simply a trailing wheel for stabilization, this whole arm (or in the case of a wide machine, multiple arms) could be rotated. As soon as this tail was rotated, the entirety of the vehicle would be borne on its wheels in the manner of what Lauterbur described perhaps erroneously as a “unicycle”. With the tail rotating, the fact that it was hollow allowed it to go over and around the periscope without striking it and then continue its rotation to the front of the vehicle.

Elevation of Lauterbur’s tractor showing how the trailing wheel could be moved from front to rear and vice versa. Image has been digitally altered by the author.
Source: US Patent US1313095

With the tail wheels moved forwards, the action allowed the vehicle to exert pressure down onto an obstacle to improve the climbing and crossing ability of the machine. Likewise, it would also allow the vehicle to rapidly change direction.

Combination plan and elevation view of the vehicle using four ‘tractor wheels’ showing the location of the periscope and three tails and how they are connected.
Source: US Patent US1313095


Lauterbur certainly put some of his knowledge of gearing systems to work within the design. Multiple overlapping rotating elements, pivots, arms, and wheels all worked together to produce a vehicle for war. Given the shape, the size, and the inherent weight, it is hard to consider how the vehicle could be powered by a single motor in a single wheel, but maybe he was more interested in the gearing and process of movement than the engine, which, afteral,l gets only a brief mention. One small engine in each wheel might have been possible but would only have served to make control harder and this was the biggest failing of the design – control.
The commander, assuming it was he using the periscope, would be directly in the way of the forward machine gunner and the driver at the same time. If he was to use the machine gun, then he would clearly not be able to operate it effectively and, if the driver was using the periscope, then the commander would have little or no vision.

The control issue gets worse the bigger the vehicle gets. Those side machine gunners would only get further from the driver and/or commander as the vehicle got bigger, the weight would increase and the width occupied by the vehicle would increase dramatically as well. All of these problems would only be magnified by the even more obvious lack of space inside the machine. Every single wheel had gearing, and there were multiple moving surfaces and gears along the entire width of the vehicle. Any fighting position would be right next to open gearing and moving machinery, creating a significant hazard for their safety. For the hapless crew in the middle, a veritable obstacle course was presented when needing to exit the vehicle by the side hatches in the event of an emergency, such as catching fire or becoming trapped.

Whatever value the vehicle might have had or offered in terms of improving the steering or moving ability of a cylindrical machine of war was outweighed by the volume of problems, technical, human, practical, and military ranged against it. Lauterbur’s machine was never built, but he appears to have done well for himself with his technical expertise better suited to the bread industry than the war. Had he not passed away before WW2, it is interesting to consider what else such a fertile mind might have created for the next great conflict.

Lauterbur’s Tractor. An illustration by AMX-13.
Specifications: Lauterbur’s Tractor
Crew est. 5, Commander, Driver, 3 x machine gunners
Armament machine guns
Speed unknown
Armor unknown
Engine unknown

Ohio County births 1841-2003
US Census 1900, S.D. 3, E.D. 92, Sheet 7
US Census 1930, S.D. 11, E.D. 75-4, Sheet 4A
US Patent US1313095, ‘Tractor’, filed 6th February 1919, granted 12th August 1919.

WW1 British Fake Tanks

Vickers’ Snail (Fictional Tank)

United Kingdom (1907)
Trench-cutting Machine – Fictional


There are numerous characters who are notable in the history of the development of tanks. Some of the names involved which stand out are well known even if their role was a secondary or tertiary one, but such people include Sir Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, Sir Ernest Swinton, Sir William Tritton, Colonel Rookes Crompton, Walter Wilson, etcetera. One person who has been virtually erased from the origin story of the tank in WW1 is Captain Charles Vickers. Vickers had a successful military career and was on the cusp of a successful writing career when he was tragically struck down with illness and died in early 1908. The result was that his writings and ideas have become lost or distorted by the chaos of WW1 and the myriad of claimants who wanted their share of fame and fortune for the invention of the tank. Captain Vickers, however, has a valid claim, certainly more so than many to his share of credit and his work can be seen as an inspirational factor for Swinton as well. Vickers’ ‘Snail’ might not have the fame of Wells’ Ironclad, but it is more valid as an idea of future armored warfare coming from a professional soldier rather than ‘just’ a writer of popular fiction.

The Man behind the Snail

Charles Ernest* Vickers was born on 23rd February 1873 in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, the youngest son of a notable local barrister Henry Thomas Vickers. He also had military heritage in his blood as his uncle was Major General John William Playfair R.E. (Royal Engineers). Educated in Dublin from 1885 to 1887, Vickers then went to Clifton College, in Bristol that September and then switched his interests from classics to military and engineering aspects.

(* His middle initial is mistakenly given as ‘C’ in the Irish Times of 12th February 1908)

Gifted as a mathematician and artist, he left Clifton College in 1890 to attend the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Vickers excelled at the academy finishing top of his class and winning the Pollock Medal (July 1892) as well as numerous prizes for his work on fortifications and artillery amongst others.

He was commissioned from the cadet company as a 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant on 22nd July 1892, to the School of Mechanical Engineering at Chatham finishing there in September 1894. He then went to the Midland Railway for Instruction in rail traffic management in October 1894. He would finish there in November 1895 during which time, in July 1895 he was promoted to lieutenant.

He then spent nearly two and a half years working on the railways at Woolwich with 10th Company Royal Engineers before a posting to Malta in April 1898 and then South Africa in October 1899. He was in South Africa for just 75 days working with 42nd Fortress Company before moving on 1st January 1900 to South Africa taking a position as a railway’s staff captain with responsibility as a Traffic Officer.

He remained in South Africa in this role and according to his service record took part in operations in the Orange Free State between March and May 1900, followed by operations in the Transvaal, east of Pretoria from July to November that year. During this service in the Transvaal, Vickers saw combat in Belfast in August. Between May and July 1901, he took part in operations in Orange River Colony followed by operations in Cape Colony, south of Orange River. He saw combat once more at Colesberg, and for his service was awarded the Queen’s Medal with 3 clasps and then the King’s medal with 3 clasps.

With the end of the Second Boer War in July 1902, Vickers was still in railway work having become the Deputy-Assistant Director of Railways (in October 1901). During his time in South Africa, he would have been familiar with mobile armored warfare in terms of armored trains. These were used extensively during the war and he would know at least the rudimentary elements of what to protect and how on a machine. Given he remained in South Africa through to the end of the war, he may also have seen Fowlers Armoured Road Train and gain some additional insight into armored warfare – this time on land.

Two views of Fowlers Armoured Road Train the engine clad in armor showing the awkward position of the armored cab at the rear, but also the hold in the rear (bottom left below the door) where the winching cable would be spooled out.
Source: The Engineer

He returned to the UK in November 1902. After a period of leave, he was posted to Salisbury Plain in March 1903 and then promoted to the rank of captain on 20th April. His posting at Salisbury Plain ended in May 1903 with a move to the Inspector General of Fortifications’ office. He stayed there until March 1905, and on 1st April 1905, Vickers was appointed to Headquarters as a staff captain. His next deployment was to be Gibraltar, but the recently engaged Captain and distinguished veteran of the South African wars fell ill. He passed away on 6th February 1908 aged 34 in London having served for nearly 16 years including nearly 5 years of overseas service. His cause of death listed on his death certificate was “Pleuro Pneumonia Meningitis” (Pneumococcal Meningitis), having passed away during surgery to treat it. He was buried with full military honors in Dublin on 11th February 1908.

His obituary, published in the Journal Of the Royal Engineers in June 1908, and penned by Ernest Swinton himself was a touching and friendly list of Vickers’ life and accomplishments including:
“…many articles from his pen appeared in different periodicals. His last finished effort in this direction – a story of war – appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine only a month before his death under the pseudonym of ‘105’.”
The story to which Ernest Swinton was referring in this part of Vickers’ obituary was a short story titled ‘The Trenches’, and it is in ‘The Trenches’ that Vickers describes ‘The Snail’.


Shortly after coming to Staff Headquarters in 1905, Vickers began writing more stories and articles just as he had done during his service in Malta. His writing and illustration skills were notable and he would start working collaboratively with Swinton on several occasions with the results published in Blackwood’s Magazine (known by its readership as ‘Maga’).

‘The Trenches’ story is set in a fictional War Office department with a pair of officers, Major Swann and Captain Marshall, looking over designs.
In the tale, a “keen-faced restless-looking citizen of the United States” called Mr. Sandpaper, interrupts these two officers and while approaching Major Swann says “You will be interested in this here machine, Major. It’s just about the latest and cutest idea in trenching machines – trench along through any darned thing: just set the depth, and it’ll go along any distance you please, and you can follow up with the pipes as fast as your men can lay them”.

“For the moment things seem to be at a deadlock; the armies have been at grips; but have had to draw off without any advantage gained on either side. It almost seems as if the conflict were like to resolve itself into pseudo-siege operations. And yet how suddenly may the kaleidoscope of war be shaken and the picture by changed”

Vickers, C., ‘The Trenches’ 1908

In the next scene, at the General’s office, staff officers are reviewing a map of the war showing a static set of lines. There is the sound of gunfire in the distance but the enemy lines remain unbroken. In order to get to the enemy lines, assault trenches have to be dug as without them, they are suffering heavy casualties. At this time, Chief Engineer Colonel Spofforth came in and was briefed on the situation. Here, Col. Spofforth proposed a new solution, the use of the freshly prepared “trenching machines” to lead the assault. This is agreed to, leading to the third and final scene, the attack of the ‘Snails’.

In this scene the reader is provided with a description of the night before the battle as these machines are brought up to the front and get to work and the soldiers who are resting are disturbed by a strange sound “…Resting! No; there is a new sound. Somewhere down below something has begun to be busy. Something is at work amid the mists of the plan. It is as if a little reaping-machine had set to cut some ghostly corn. No, not quite a reaping-machine – more like a mammoth deathwatch. It must be some strange animal: something endowed with life, for is not that another calling to its mate?”

Here, Vickers provided some critical information for his idea. A mechanically propelled machine making strange mechanical noises and seemingly alive as it goes about its business cutting an attack trench for the soldiers to use the next day. Further, the shape of the vehicle clearly delineated it as no agricultural device but more like a ‘deathwatch’.

This reference can be two fold, firstly in terms of shape with a dark-coloured rounded body and secondly as an omen. In 1907, there was effectively no stopping the Deathwatch (Xestobium refovillosum) beetle’s progress if it happened to infest your home as it devoured the timbers (mainly oak), but more importantly that it was seen as an omen of foreboding. In folklore, the clicking noises it makes was associated with death (hence the name). The Deathwatch beetle has been the subject of stories by such notable authors as Edgar Allen Poe in 1843 and Beatrix Potter (1903). In a modern understanding of the beetle, the tapping noise it makes is not only audible but may also be being used as an allegory in the story for bursts of machine gun fire.

The adult Deathwatch Beetle (Xestobium refovillosum).
Source: Wiki via Gilles San Martin
Sound of the Deathwatch Beetle. Source: wiki via Gilles San Martin (2012).

As the attack goes in, the narrative shifts to one presented almost in a Wellsian fashion from the point of view of a reporter. Here, the reporter struggles to describe what he is seeing saying: “The machine!… But it seems such a simple, almost obvious notion to evolve a machine that shall dig trenches, that shall be able to move unconcernedly across open ground where no man can show himself scatheless, secure under its turtleback of steel, inconspicuous, minding all the hail of lead as little as rain … They have nicknamed it The Snail but it can burrow forward like a mole!”.

Adding the smooth rounded type of carapace as found on the insect shaped description before the journalist, via Vickers writing, is clarifying that it is indeed a large rounded outer shell and that it was to be made of steel. Given that in the account, the machine can travel “unconcernedly across open ground” it indicates sufficient armor to be proof against fire as well

“fighting in the trenches is veritably a bloody affair”

Vickers, C., ‘The Trenches’ 1908.

With the Snails moving forwards purposefully and carving out avenues for the soldiers to follow behind it, the attack then goes in. With these ‘Snails’ on hand, the soldiers did not have to dig attack trenches and instead could follow the trail of the machine, covered from enemy fire right up to the point of attack. At one point, the correspondent reporting on the scene describes seeing one of the ‘Snails’ come out of a trench “half concealed in a cloud of dust” and having cut far enough forwards it halts. The men bring up a mortar to bombard enemy positions from the shelter of the trench dug behind the machine and thereafter assault the enemy lines on the hill. The final outcome is a positive one to validate the utility of the machines, the enemy forces are driven from their defensive positions despite the loss of a few Snails to enemy artillery fire.

Method of Attack

In considering The Snail in Vickers’ story, the first obvious comparison is to what is considered as a tank. A more apt comparison however, might be to a more unusual machine known commonly as ‘Nellie’. In 1940, ‘Nellie’ (Cultivator No. 6) was a project by the Naval Land Equipment (N.L.E.) to create a tracked assault machine.

Cultivator No. 6 ‘Nellie’ during trials in 1941, showing off the enormous plough on the front and behind it, the side-discharge tracks to throw spoil. The white line down the side was the ground level when in use.
Source: Wiki.

‘Nellie’, like Vickers’ Snail, was to advance forwards creating a trench and discarding spoil to the sides as it went. Whereas Nellie simply used a giant plough and the power from its engines to drive that forwards, the Snail was described as using actual cutting equipment instead. Indeed, the closest machine to the Snail in both operation and date might be that of William Norfolk in 1916. That vehicle operated on wheels and used a large cutting face along with a means to discharge spoil to the sides. It too would cut a trench as it went, albeit for slightly different purposes.

William Norfolk’s ‘Trench Artillery’ machine of 1916. Source: Canadian Patent CA174919.



Just as H. G. Wells had described a cockroach like machine in his 1903 story, the Land Ironclads, Vickers also used an insect analogy. His choice was described as Deathwatch Beetle-like and also as a rounded steel body. Both designs, therefore, adopted a low rounded armored shell to protect their respective machines.

No specific thickness of armor is mentioned by Vickers but he does say the vehicle could cross no-mans’ land area without harm, so at least, protection from machine gun and rifle fire is implied. He also clarifies within the story that during their cutting of zig-zag-shaped assault trenches, some were wrecked by enemy artillery, so the armor was by no means impervious to all enemy fire.


No specific offensive weaponry is mentioned in Vickers’ story. Nonetheless, that is not to say that his vehicles would be unarmed. First and most obviously is the trenching, cutting, nature of the vehicle. Driving itself ahead, half submerged in the ground as it advanced, it would destroy anything in its way, whether trench, parapet, or enemy soldiers.

The next point from Vickers’ story was that tapping Deathwatch Beetle noise. It could be taken as implicitly referring to machine gun fire either incoming or outgoing, in which case the vehicles would be armed. Using men inside with rifles to fire would not really fit with the experience of a military man who would know that firing from a moving vehicle would produce very poor results. He had seen combat and understood the value of well-placed fire. Any vehicle with no guns would provide substantially less value in combat than a vehicle with even the most modest of armament and it is difficult therefore to contemplate Vickers’ machine without at least one machine gun located in the area above the digging line. Nonetheless, the omission of any direct mention and that at one point the crew is implied to consist of just one man as a ‘driver’ suggests that they may have been armed only with their cutting equipment.

As a side reference, Vickers’ comments on the use of a mortar directly behind the ‘Snail’ in the assault is almost eerily similar to an idea trialed in 1917 to bring heavy fire support along with a tank. The 1917 experiment involved a 6” (152 mm) Stokes mortar on a platform between the rear horn of a Mk.IV tank fitted with the tadpole track extensions, whereas Vickers had considered a mortar being brought up behind the machine separately. In effect, the idea of a mortar behind the tank is identical, except that by attaching it, the effort for the men was much reduced. Either way, it demonstrates once more the difference that the experience, and specifically, the combat experience of Captain Vickers made in his story. He was able to apply his experiences to consideration of a whole new type of warfare and did so rather well.

British Mk.IV tank with ‘tadpole’ track extensions seen at Dollis Hill in 1917. The vehicle has been experimentally fitted with a fixed platform on the back on which is mounted a 6” (152 mm) Stokes mortar.
Source: wiki

Automotive Elements

The most complex part of Vickers’ tale to unravel is the means of propulsion envisaged for the device. On the face of it, the vehicle might be surmised to be a simple wheeled vehicle with this new carapace fitted. It was, afterall, described as a trench cutting machine at the start of the story and at the time of writing in 1907, there were not many tracked vehicles around. That is not to say that there were none, and Vickers’ colleague Ernest Swinton would even end up reviewing tracked vehicle trials in 1908 for the Ruston-Hornsby design.

Short clipping of the Ruston Hornsby tractor during trials in Lincolnshire, 1908.
Source: Lincolnshire Film Archives.

Ignatius Clark, in his book Voices Prophetizing War (1993), suggests that the vehicle was meant to be tracked, based, it seems, on the ‘Snail’ like description. A hard shell and a slow steady creeping form of motion like a real Snail would certainly allow for this interpretation. However, perhaps Vickers did not wish to commit himself to a specific form of traction, as afterall, such a thing was not necessary for the plot of the story. The only hint he provides in fact is the mention of the use of petrol as fuel meaning that a steam traction engine can at least be excluded.

Forgetfulness or Betrayal?

As a prelude to a conclusion about the actual machine in Vickers’ story there is an important element to consider in terms of ‘invention’. Specifically, the old question of who invented the tank. Ignoring the too-often cited wooden cart of Da Vinci, the reality was that until the advent of mechanical propulsion, a self-propelled fighting machine was effectively out of reach. Likewise, until the use of tracks became viable with the Hornsby-Ackroyd being the first notable example in 1908, the passage of those vehicles over soft ground was so problematic as to preclude the widespread use of armored vehicles.

The writings of H. G. Wells in 1903 with The Land Ironclads is also often cited as an important factor and the result of the 1919 Royal Enquiry into the invention of tanks made reference to it as well. The man most directly responsible for the invention of tanks according to that enquiry was none other than Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton. Swinton was sure to make a good account of himself in the inquiry. This was followed by numerous speeches, public engagements, and publications including his autobiography Ole Luk-Oie published in 1951. Swinton did well for himself as the recipient of a substantial financial award by the Royal Enquiry, as well as in his later ventures, yet nowhere in any print or speech did he mention Vickers. He did mention Wells, but not Vickers… but why?

When Vickers was working as a staff officer from 1906 until his death in 1908, his direct supervisor was Ernest Swinton, so he definitely knew him. Further, they worked closely together on stories, having penned An Eddy of War together which was published in April 1907. The story was a somewhat rambling tale of soldiery during an invasion of England, although it did at least put some focus on Germany as a future adversary. Nonetheless, neither this German adversary nor the invaded English of the tale use any kind of armed or armored vehicle.

Proof of their friendship comes directly from Swinton, who wrote to the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine (Mr. Blackwood also a friend) of Blackwood’s Magazine (known to its readers simply as ‘Maga’) on 29th December 1906 saying “I return proof of ‘An Eddy of War; corrected. I need hardly say that both my pal (Capt. Vickers R.E.) and I am delighted at your taking [of the story] for [publication in] Maga”. Several other times Swinton also referred to Vickers directly in his correspondence with Blackwood’s Magazine.

On 10th October 1907, Vickers wrote to Blackwood saying “It is hardly necessary to say that I feel very pleased you think ‘The Trenches’ worthy of a place in ‘Maga’. It is the first writing of my own you have accepted, though ‘An Eddy of War’ was partly mine (with Swinton)”. Swinton even remarked directly on The Trenches to Blackwood on 12th December 1907, writing “I was pleased to hear from Vickers (Capt. R.E.) that he had had a story accepted by you and I am keen to see it. It sounds like a good one”.

He then proves he has read it in a letter to Blackwood of 8th January 1908 saying “I like Vickers’s yarn… Why will our powers at home not consult the people who know, a little more?”
The Trenches was the only story of Vickers which had to that point been published (and would be the only one published in his lifetime) so the reference to “the yarn” can only be The Trenches.

Last but not least connecting these two men is a singular obituary. This was Vickers’ obituary which was published in the June 1908 edition of the Royal Engineers Journal and was written by Swinton himself. Swinton did not attend Vickers’ funeral in Dublin but he assuredly knew him and his work very well.

In his book Histories of the Future: Studies in Fact, Fantasy and Science Fiction (2000), the author, Alan Sandison contends that not only did Swinton know Vickers, was friends with Vickers and read his work, but that he was also careful not to mention his name at any point. This was, he asserts, a deliberate and intentional act to exclude Vickers’ name from the record of the inquiry into tank development or any of Swinton’s later writings. Not only this, but Sandison goes on to say that “Swinton’s exclusion of Vickers is so complete that it suggests both purposefulness and premeditation, which, if true, indicates that he feared Vickers’s vision would be seen as so informing his own that it would be taken as the true ‘source’ of the invention of the tank”. Had Swinton mentioned Vickers during the inquiry it is likely that not only would Vickers’ name be better known, but also that his family might have shared in some of the rewards, both financially and in fame. Swinton’s omission at best therefore, can be seen with a view to a motive for profit from a man he formerly regarded as a close friend and colleague.

“Had Vickers survived, it is quite possible that Swinton might not be the name associated with the invention of the tank”

I.F. Clarke (1993).


In contrast to Wells’ rather naive descriptions of use, with the Snail, Vickers is right on the money and maybe a little too prescient in seeing a divide between trench lines as being a land “where no man can show himself scatheless” (literally a ‘no mans’ land’). This type of static war had been considered by Ian Stanislavovich Bloch which had been published in English for the first time in 1899 under the title Is War Now Impossible. In it, he theorized that the growth in range, speed, and penetration of modern ammunition meant that weapons were so deadly, armies could no longer face each other and that the next war would “be a great war of entrenchments”.

Both Bloch and Vickers predicted a static type of war, a war where opposing forces had to dig defensive works to protect from the fire of the other and through which neither side could progress very well. This too is well beyond Wells’ more limited vision of crossing enemy wire to pursue an enemy, and predicts all too well exactly the sort of warfare which would take place a few years later in WW1.


Clark, I. (1993). Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749. Oxford University Press, UK.
Borthwick, F. (1912). Clifton College Annals and Register 1862-1912. Bristol, UK.
Canadian Patent CA174919 Trench Artillery, filed 21st September 1916, granted 6th February 1917
Irish Times (Newspaper). ‘Military Funeral in Dublin’, 12th February 1908.
Oakley, E. (1890). Clifton College Register 1862-1889 (Supplement). Entrances in September 1887.
Quarter 1, 1908 Death Certificates Volume 1a, No.315 Chelsea.
Sandison, A. & Dingley, R. (2000). Histories of the Future: Studies in Fact, Fantasy and Science Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, USA.
The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. VII, No.6, June 1908.
Vickers, C. (1905). The Siberian railway in war. Royal Engineers Journal, Vol.2, August 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Transport and Railroad Gazette – Progress in yard design, The Royal Engineers Journal, 26th May 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Engineering News – Double-tracking of Railways, The Royal Engineers Journal, 14th September 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Bulletin of the International Railway Congress, The Royal Engineers Journal, September 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Electrical Review – High Speed Traction, The Royal Engineers Journal, June 10th 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Railway and Locomotive Engineering – Single Line Working, The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. 1, February 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Engineering News – Impure Sand in Concrete, The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. 1, 2nd February 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Railways and Locomotive Engineer. The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. 1, 2nd February 1905.
Vickers, C. (1907). The Trenches. Published January 1908 in Blackwood’s Magazine Vol. CLXXXIII, (January-June 1908). Edition, William Blackwood and Sons, London, UK.
War Office File WO25/3917, Page 268/418, Service Record of Charles Ernest Vickers, Royal Engineers.

And a thank you to Hilary Doyle for his assistance in validating some information in Dublin.

WW1 French Prototypes WW2 French Superheavy Tanks

Perrinelle-Dumay Amphibious Heavy Tank

France (1918-1933)
Amphibious Heavy Tank – None Built


Louis Paul André de Perrinelle-Dumay was born on 11th February 1864 in Versailles and joined the Navy in 1881. He served on various ships in the years before WW1, including the battleships Dévastation and Charlemagne. He was promoted to the rank of Capitaine de frégate on 31st August 1916 and became President of the Telegraphic Control Commission in Le Havre.

By January 1917, however, he was to leave ships and ship matters and embark on a new career in tanks. Specifically, he became a senior officer attached as an observer to the commanding officer (17th January) of ‘Groupement de St Chamond n° X’ (10th Tank Group), consisting of three companies; AS 31, AS 33, and AS 36, at Marly le Roi, west of Paris. At this time, the unit was experimental and not yet fully developed, and so was being led by Captain Calmels. The Army equivalent rank of Capitaine de frégate is Lieutenant Colonel.

Capitaine de frégate Perrinelle-Dumay remained with the unit, which was unable to properly deploy tanks in the Autumn due to various technical problems and which was not even properly constituted with vehicles until August. AS 31 within the 10th Tank Group was commanded at this time by Captain Lefebrve, perhaps because Perrinelle-Dumay was a naval officer and not an officer from the Army. Perrinelle-Dumay had been moved to tanks because of technical knowledge with electricity rather than an intimate knowledge of trench warfare. This would change after the battle of Laffaux in May 1917, when Capitaine de frégate Perrinelle-Dumay was given command of the unit, although he would technically still be under the command of a more junior Lt. Colonel.

Freshly painted and mud free St. Chamond assault tank.
Source: French National Library.

Nonetheless, Capitaine de frégate Perrinelle-Dumay would thereafter personally command AS 31 and became intimately familiar with the design, its limitations, and also the electric transmission used in the St. Chamond (a 80/90 hp Panhard 4 cylinder petrol engine driving a 52 kW dynamo and supplying one electric motor on each side). Any reticence on the part of General Estienne about giving command of tanks to Naval, as opposed to Army officers was dispelled by Perrinelle-Dumay’s skills and performance in command, but his rank could not be ignored either. Command of tank groups was the job of more junior Lt. Colonels or Commanders and his time with tanks was to end. General Estienne formally signed the return of Perrinelle-Dumay to the Navy on 29th December 1917, having appointed a new commander, Battalion Commander Georges Fornier, as head of the 10th Tank Group.

Captain Perrinelle-Dumay’s design as shown on the cover of his 1933 book ‘Chars de Combat’.


The first idea from Capitaine de frégate Perrinelle-Dumay took the form of a report sent on 18th February 1918, suggesting a long, well-armed and well-protected tank superior to those currently employed by the French Army. The idea was loosely thought out at first and, in November 1918, peace broke out all over Europe with the Armistice. Pressures to design, produce, and use new heavy tanks were obviously diminished by this change in political development, even though the war technically would not be over at the time. Even so, it was not until 6th March 1921 that Perrinelle-Dumay’s design had taken on some formalized specifications and the true scale of this tank would be apparent – nearly 20 meters long and weighing a hefty 84 tonnes. For reference, even the giant German ‘K-Wagen’, still unfinished at the end of WW1, was ‘just’ 13 meters long.


The tank proposed by Perrinell-Dumay was enormous and yet could have become even bigger. At nearly 20 meters, the length alone would create logistical problems for such a tank, but the design was clearly arranged that way to provide for a vehicle capable of crossing extremely wide gaps or trenches. The drawings clearly show the vehicle negotiating a pair of parallel trenches, with the larger of them being 5 meters wide. A long vehicle is all but essential for crossing a large gap, and the rest of the machine was little more than a simple flat-sided body on top of the tracks, more like a tramcar than a tank of the era. No turret was provided, so all the armament was spread around the vehicle’s exterior with weapons on the front, sides, rear, and roof. The bow and stern of the tank both sloped upwards, providing additional clearance at both ends to prevent the vehicle from fouling on the ground when negotiating a vertical obstacle. The bow was slightly higher than the stern, with a pronounced rounded part underneath and the front armament arranged in a triangular shape around it.

Capitaine de frégate Perrinelle-Dumay’s original drawing for his giant landship.
Source: Perrinelle-Dumay, Chars 1933

The stern raised up from the ground, but around ⅔ of the way up, the vehicle became flat, like the back deck of a speedboat, with a pronounced vertical step to the roofline. In this step was the large single rear-facing gun. Surmounting this entire machine was a series of small turrets. These were not for armament but observation, with the first two being of the stroboscopic type. The rearmost of the three appears to have been a simple box-type cupola fixed in place, providing observation to the rear and side. It would have had no use facing forwards anyway, given the enormous length of the vehicle roof in front of it and that the view ahead would have been completely obscured by those stroboscopic turrets. The front two stroboscopic turrets were in line with each other down the center-line of the tank, meaning that the no.2 turret would have been unable to see directly to the front, as the no.1 turret would block the view.


The vehicle was simply huge. In total, the proposal was for a vehicle measuring 19.7 meters (62 feet 8 inches) from end to end and, yet, for all this length, just 3 meters (9 feet 10 inches) wide. This width would technically fall within the maximum width available for the French rail gauge and was the same width as the French Char 2C. At this length, it would likely have been too long for most transport by rail due to issues of turning, as a railcar of the era was not even this long. For reference, the Char 2C (a vehicle which was already in development at the time) was only half the length of this enormous machine. At nearly 20 m, this vehicle would have been one of the longest single-hulled armored fighting machines ever to be made.

French Char 2C. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When static on hard ground, the total height was estimated to be 3.7 m (12 feet, 2 inches), although it is unclear whether this was to the tops of the stroboscopic turrets or just the hull. Thus, the vehicle was to be slightly lower than the Char 2C. These overall dimensions meant a very long, thin, and relatively low tank, but it was also to be heavy.

The K-Wagen was a ‘fat beast’, at 120 tonnes, and the Char 2C a relative lightweight in comparison, at just 69 tonnes. This tank from Perrinelle-Dumay was estimated to be around 84 tonnes and, given a common trend for vehicles which get heavier in the transition from the drawing board to the delivery of a prototype, could well have weighed even more if construction was ever attempted.


The British planned a relatively simple expansion of their existing tank shape and design to be operated by them and the Americans, armed with a pair of cannons in sponsons on the side and then a few machine guns. The German K-Wagen, likewise focussed guns in the side sponsons, whereas the Char 2C adopted a turret instead. There were still machine guns in the side, but they did not project in sponsons.

Bristling with guns from the front, rear, roof, and sides, the vehicle is shown with more than a dozen machine guns as well as cannons.
Source: Perrinelle-Dumay, Chars 1933

Perrinelle-Dumay cannot have been unaware of a turret as an option for the tank, as the French Renault FT was already in widespread use by this time. Neither can he have been unaware of sponsons as armament options, given their even more widespread use by the British.

It was to be a variation of the sponson idea he would select as the most suitable for armament for the tank. The vehicle would be positively bristling with guns too, with multiple machine guns and two different caliber cannons. This sort of arrangement and decision to employ multiple guns was not only reflective of the nature of trench warfare and close combat, where the dominance of the machine gun was needed as widely as possible around a vehicle, but also that high-explosive firing guns were needed to tackle enemy positions, bunkers, and even vehicles. It is also indicative of a vehicle which lacked a turret to provide fire in a 360º arc, using limited firing positions arranged around the outside of the tank.

Perrinelle-Dumay compared to contemporary tanks
French British German
FCM 2C Perrinelle-Dumay Mk.VIII International K-Wagen
Year 1917 1918+ 1917 1917
Crew 12 ~12+ 12 27
L / W / H
10.27 x 3.00 x 4.09 19.70 x 3.00 x 3.70 10.41 x 3.56 x 3.12 13.00 x 6.00 x 3.00
Weight 69 tonnes 84 tonnes 38 tonnes 120 tonnes
Armament 1 x 75 mm gun
4 x machine guns
2 x 65 mm
1 x 47 mm
13 x machine guns
2 x 6 pdr.
7 x machine guns
4 x 77 mm
7 x machine guns
Armor (max.) 45 mm 80 mm 16 mm 30 mm
Speed 15 km/h u/k 8.45 km/h 7.5 km/h

All told, the tank had a total of 13 machine guns spread around the outside. The first was located right at the point of the bow, covering a wide arc directly in front of the tank. Below it, within the curved portion, were two more machine guns covering the rest of the front arc. After the bow, behind the main side cannons, were another pair of machine guns on the side and two more on the roof. After this, no more guns were located on the sides, as there would probably be no access to the sides due to the position of the fuel tanks inside the sides. As with the front section of the tank (excluding the bow), two more pairs of machine guns are arranged as before, with one pair on the side and the other on the roof. A final pair of machine guns straddled the bottom of the stern covering the rear. Assuming each machine gun was to be manned all the time, this would have meant 13 men just for these machine guns alone. These machine guns were by no means the entirety of the armament proposed either. The angled front of the machine was shaped in such a way that the large guns mounted at the bottom corners of the front ‘triangle’ could be rotated in their mounting to the front and side. In this way, their 130º arcs overlapped a short distance in front of the tank and well past the halfway point to the side.

Approximate arcs of fire from the guns (orange) and machine guns (purple) with the bow and stern machine guns (red) as provided by the original drawing from Perrinelle-Dumay. Author.

The arrangement of the guns provided some overlapping arcs of fire front and back, but also some gaps. For example, the innermost guns to the center on each side were on the roof and would have been unable to depress to even perhaps zero degrees, so they would have been all but useless for firing at ground targets. The next nearest guns along the side would have had some ability to fire to the sides but were not mounted in sponsons projecting from the sides. Thus, they would not have been able to fire directly down the lines of the vehicle to cover the sides, creating a blind spot close to the center side on both the left and right.

Likewise, the position of the main guns at the front created a problem. Whilst both could, quite cleverly, be arranged in that ‘triangle’ on the bow to overlap fire forwards, they would not be able to depress very well within their mounting to accommodate the steep climb of the tank when crossing an obstacle or to fire at a position at or below ground level – like a trench. This is surely the reason for the lower machine guns in the front, which would ensure that even when climbing, it could fire down and ahead. Obviously, two machine guns were not an adequate replacement for 3 machine guns and two cannons.

Seen in the plan view, the design shows a central area for the engines, with fuel stowed on each side.
Source: Perrinelle-Dumay, Chars 1933

The situation at the rear was even worse. When descending a slope, the gun, unable to depress properly due to the rear ‘deck’ over the stern track, would have a view of the sky and be utterly useless. If it was all but redundant when going downhill and no more use when going uphill, the gunner would be provided with nothing more than an unobstructed view of the ground over which the tank had just passed. Thus, any movement up or down a slope for the tank, outside of a relatively low angle, rendered some or all of the armament difficult or impossible to use.

The guns themselves were unlikely to be anything out of the ordinary. France had plenty of guns, and the standard machine gun of the day for use in tanks was the Hotchkiss Modèle 1914 8 mm light machine gun, which remained in widespread use in WW2 for French forces.

The arrangement of cannons was two at the front and a single one at the back which, given the armament was stated to be a pair of 65 mm guns and a single 47 mm gun, suggests the 47 mm was the one at the back. The 65 mm gun used is not specified, and there were a couple of 65 mm guns which might be the one Perrinelle-Dumay was considering. One option is the Canon de 65M Modèle 1906. This was a mountain gun firing a 4.4 kg shell at a relatively low velocity of 330 m/s. It was also a short-barrelled gun, at just L.20.5, and the guns shown in the crude drawing appear to be proportionally longer than this gun.

Two other options are the 65 mm L.50 (actual bore length 49.2 calibers) Modèle 1888/1891, firing a 4.1 kg shell at 715 m/s, and the 65 mm L.50 Modèle 1902, firing a 4.2 kg shell at 800 m/s. Both of these guns are long enough to possibly be the ones considered and were available at the time.

The 47 mm gun considered is not clear either. There were guns such as the C.47 F.R.C. Mod.31 (French: Canon anti-char de 47 mm Fonderie Royale de Canons Modèle 1931 / English: Royal Cannon Foundry 47 mm Anti-tank, Model 1931) which might have been considered in 1933. Firing a 1.5 kg shell between 450 m/s (High Explosive) and 720 m/s (Armor Piercing), this was a capable gun for anti-tank and support work. However, it was too late to have been a gun that might have been considered back in 1918 or 1921.

However, a 47 mm gun which was around at the time and was widely available was the 47 mm Hotchkiss cannon. This was found in service with the French and several other militaries in a variety of lengths and versions since it was introduced in 1886. Assuming a version like the Modèle 1902 was the one he was thinking of, this L.50 version would have been able to fire a 2 kg shell at around 650 m/s. Even in 1933, this was still capable of being a threat to many contemporary tanks or troops with a variety of high explosive or armor piercing shells. It was, however, also long in the tooth in 1933 and newer 47 mm guns, like the aforementioned C.47 F.R.C. Mod.31, were better candidates.


The suspension for this huge vehicle was modified slightly during the conceptual stage. Although Perrinell-Dumay did not provide drawings of the original 1918 concept or the 1921 amendment, he explained one important change. Specifically, the vehicle shown in 1933 used 3 primary track units per side and a single angled one at the back, for a total of 7 track units, on the machine. The design was originally to have been supplemented with an additional angled track unit on the front, under the nose. This does appear to have been less of an idea of a projected-forward independent track, like that envisaged for the French St. Chamond, and more like an integrated track unit, as exemplified by the design of Robert Macfie in 1919 and for the same reasons – obstacle crossing.

Idea for the French St. Chamond tank to improve obstacle crossing with an independent front track unit. Source: Adapted from ‘The Engineer’.
Robert Mcfie’s landship of 1919, with its integrated angled front track to aid in obstacle crossing. Source: US Patent 1,298,367.

A raised front track unit could grip higher up on an obstacle, such as a wall, embankment, or parapet to aid the vehicle in climbing, but it was also at a price. The price for such a concept was a lot of weight and complexity. Even if the track unit was unpowered and simply moved as a result of being pushed from behind, it was still weight from the tracks and wheels which could be omitted in favor perhaps of a simple roller. Perrinelle-Dumay also followed this line of thought, as the front track was gone, whether powered or not and replaced with a reshaped and ship-like prox designed so that the tank could simply be pushed forwards and slide up the opposite bank or over the parapet, etcetera.

Seen in cross-section during passage over a pair of trenches, Perrinelle-Dumay’s track units conform to the terrain.
Source: Perrinelle-Dumay, Chars 1933

A single track unit would be retained at the back, as this ensured that there would be some additional traction and distribution of the load at the rear of the tank, but the same logic would apply here too. If the unit was unpowered, then its only purpose would be to stop the tail dragging in the mud and spread some additional load, and any powered track would be adding substantial additional weight and complexity.

The fact that Perrinelle-Dumay removed the leading track yet retained the rearmost one suggests that he may have considered the front one to be unpowered and the rear one powered all along. Sadly, there is insufficient information to make a concrete determination on this point.

Of the 7 total track units, three on each side would have been in contact with the ground when on a flat surface, with that seventh angled track unit off the ground at the back under the stern deck. This seventh track unit was also noticeably shorter in length than the three primary units on each side. On a flat surface, the 6 tracks supporting the tank’s weight would produce about 700 g/cm2 of pressure (68.6 kPa) and up to a maximum of 1,500 g/cm2 (147.1 kPa) when crossing an obstacle.

Each of those primary track units was indistinctly drawn but followed the same overall ‘squashed oval’ shape of French tanks like the St. Chamond. Those track units used a smaller front wheel and larger drive wheel at the back, with bogies in between using small wheels fixed to a horizontal steel beam. The track’s leading edge was flat, like on the Perrinelle-Dumay track’s drawing. Being flat like this would be a serious hindrance for negotiating a step or parapet, effectively limiting climbing to around half the height of the lead wheel. However, unlike the St. Chamond, the saving grace of this design was the adoption of not a single unit, but three such sets for primary traction. This meant that, as unit one might climb a step, the following units and even unit seven at the back would assist in pushing the tank up and over.

One additional and unusual feature of the design was the jacks. Clearly shown in place and then in use were 4 jacks arranged along each side of the tank. The first one was ahead of the lead track unit, with jacks 2, 3, and 4 arranged between track units 1-2, 2-3, and 3-7.

The positions of the stands are shown with the vehicle jacked up on a flat surface.
Source: Perrinelle-Dumay, Chars 1933

The purpose of the jacks is not explained and, not projecting out from the existing width of the vehicle, would have been unsuitable for use on anything other than level and hard ground or else risk the vehicle toppling over onto its side. The obvious conclusion therefore may simply be for ease of maintenance. The jacks are shown in use on exactly that kind of hard flat surface rather than off-road and clearly lifted the vehicle roughly the same height as each track unit. Elevating the tank like this would certainly have made track and suspension maintenance significantly easier for the crews.


One of the odder points from Perrinelle-Dumay was his desire for amphibious capability. Making tanks watertight is complex in itself, but even assuming this could have been done for the tank, the list of problems was nearly as long as the tank itself. Floating is one thing, and the internal volume of the tank certainly appears sufficient to ensure what Perrinelle-Dumay calculated for his 3.7 m high vehicle to be a freeboard of 1.2 m (he estimated/calculated it would have 2.5 m submerged when floating). Once floating, the tank would have to be propelled and there is no provision at all for a propeller shown, suggesting only propulsion from the tracks would be used, making for a very slow vehicle in the water.

On top of this, the shape was wholly unsuited to ship-ness. It was long, tall and narrow and Perrinelle-Dumay accepted this, suggesting that, if amphibian-ness were needed, then the width would have to be increased. Assuming issues of flotation, water tightness, and propulsion in the water could have been solved, then increasing the width would have made regular transport on the French railways impossible.

Of note is that at the submerged height proposed, only those arms present on the upper parts of the tank would be usable, so those two lower front and rear machine guns would be completely submerged. Anything other than a flat calm sea would likely render anything other than the bow and roof machine guns utterly useless too.

Despite these obvious issues with making a tank float, Perrinelle-Dumay still sought input from the Chief Engineer of the French Navy, Maxime Laubeuf, and even the option of some kind of trailer for the tank. Maxime Laubeuf was a naval expert and in particular in the field of submarines. Perhaps that was the expected fate of this tank afterall when at sea. No additional details were given and no work on making this thing work as a ship seems to have gone further than this concept.


Like most big machines, this tank needed a big engine, or in this case ‘engines’. No number is specified for how many engines were to be used, but the machine’s plan is clear that more than one engine was to be used and allocated a large space for them. This space ran longitudinally down the vehicle’s center-line, from a position directly behind the second stroboscopic turret for approximately 8 m back.

Fuel tanks marked as “carburant” (French for ‘fuel’) on the plans run longitudinally down both sides, between approximately the position of the middle stroboscopic turret and the one at the rear, a distance of around 9.2 m. Shown as approximately 0.6 m wide, these tanks are very large, but quite how much fuel they could hold is unknown, as no height is provided on the plans. Assuming that the height is roughly the same as the width for what would be a rectangular-prism-shaped tank, then each one would hold 0.6 x 0.6 x 9.2 = 3.312 m3 of fuel, for a total of 6.624 m3 in total, a capacity of 6,624 liters.

The fuel tanks and motors ran parallel to each other but were not connected, leaving a walkway around 50 – 60 cm wide between them on each side down the full length of the tank. The fuel itself was considered by Perrinell-Dumay to possibly be of the ‘oil-type’ i.e. ‘diesel’, rather than petrol, presumably for safety reasons. He also considered the unusual idea of the engines running on coal instead, for what would have been either a steam engine burning the coal or possibly heating it to burn the gas produced. Such a system would have been highly unusual for a tank, and still hints that the designer’s knowledge of Naval matters was more up to date than knowledge of tanks and the power plants for ground vehicles. Efficiency for such coal or coal-gas systems would have been lower than liquid fuel, like diesel, but would have provided two additional advantages. Firstly, the bunkers for the coal in the “carburant” area could have been much larger than expected of a liquid fuel tank, perhaps as big as the full height of the hull, as they would provide additional protection for the tank. Secondly, not being liquids, they would be much safer to handle and there would be no concerns over leakage of flammable liquids. They would also effectively create buoyancy modules inside the tank – something important for the design, as it was meant to be fully amphibious.

Interior of the St. Chamond tank, looking towards down the side to the rear. The narrow space in which to move or fight is readily apparent around the large engine in the center.
Source: French National Library

There were problems with the idea too. Not only was the solid-fuel option less efficient than a liquid like diesel, it was also likely to need one or more people to stoke the boiler or move the fuel around with a shovel. Not only would Perrinell-Dumay have been familiar with this hazard, but he would also no doubt have been familiar with another potential hazard too – explosions. It was well known at the time, (and remains a hazard today) that coal bunkers, especially the associated finely pulverized dust in them, are a significant dust explosion hazard when exposed to an ignition source.

One further hazard he may have considered was carbon dioxide poisoning. Burning a fuel like this in an enclosed environment, particularly a low heat, smoldering fire inside the boiler/s, would produce a dangerous exposure of carbon monoxide (CO) for the crew. The production of carbon monoxide as a problem when using the guns also provided a bleak picture for the crew in what could have been a toxic-gas environment for them.


Just as with the gun issue, where the vertical deflection of the tank crossing rough ground or obstacles made the guns unable to depress and target the enemy at or below ground level, the situation was even worse for command and control. All of the external observation from this serpentine tank was governed by whatever small portals were provided near the gun apertures and the three ‘turrets’ on top. The rear, appearing to be fixed and square, provided only a very limited view backwards and the sides, with a large blindspot all round close to the tank and zero visibility ahead.

The other two turrets were of the stroboscopic type. A stroboscopic cupola was an attempt to provide vision for the man inside without the use of bulletproof glass (although the stroboscopic cupola on the FCM Char 2C did have individual panes of laminated protective glass on this internal ‘skeletonised’ cupola part of the device) or the risk of splash-related eye and face injury from an unprotected slot.

The technology, as deployed on the Char 2C and presumably on this design as well, relied upon a cupola in two parts. The first was the interior section, which looked like a skeletonised cupola fixed in place. On top of this and pivoting from a central mounting on top of this skeleton cupola, was the drum. This drum was pierced with numerous vertical slits arranged circumferentially. The drum part was then rotated around this skeletonised cupola and, thanks to visual phenomena known as ‘persistence of vision’, a view of the outside wider than that of a single slot was presented to the observer within. Presumably, if the turret or cupola planned for this tank were the same type as the FCM Char 2C, then it would also use protective glass on the inner portion.

Stroboscopic type cupola as used on the French FCM Char 2C.

A simple example of everyday use of this effect can be found in the Victorian zoetrope toy, with a rotating cylinder viewed through a slot looking at a series of pictures of something like a horse. Thanks to the persistence of vision the horse appears to run. In the tank-stroboscopic cupola, the view simply reverses the process and is inside the drum looking out rather than looking in.


Gigantic tanks often come with gigantic crews. The German K-Wagen had a whopping complement of 28 men to command and operate. This large tank would also be well-stocked with men.

Assuming one man per machine gun, one per cannon, and one per cupola would mean no less than a crew of 19. If a loader was required per gun or shared between the front guns, that would increase the number yet further, as would any idea of having to have a stoker to feed coal into the boiler. Each gun however, probably more realistically required 3 men to operate, so a better estimate of the crew needed to operate this vehicle might be more like machine gunners (13), driver (1), commander (1), rear observer (1), rear gun crew (2), front gun crew (6), [and possibly one or two stokers] for a total of 24 [+2]. This was enough for 2 Char 2Cs or 6 of the Char B1 which was just a few years away.


The tank was big, too big. It was too heavy for its size and the armament was poorly arranged. Ideas of amphibious work were impractical. The crew was a ridiculous potential waste of valuable manpower. The Perrinelle-Dumay tank was a retrograde design from one of the era’s more progressive and innovative tank nations. It clearly was more 1918 than it was 1933, a time by which only the largest and heaviest land battleship, such as the Char 2C, was in favor and it too was headed for replacement. Any replacement was not going to go back to such a relatively crude design, with so many weapons and problems and no reasonable tank design was going to be adopted relying on coal.

What the vehicle was, therefore, was more of a thought exercise from a senior officer. Perrinelle-Dumay clearly knew enough about some mechanical aspects but not enough to understand the limitations of tanks or his own designs. The very naval nature of the vehicle speaks volumes about where Captain Perrinelle-Dumay’s real knowledge lay and this design, despite many years of thought and effort, was simply obsolete before the ink was dry on the paper. Perrinelle-Dumay would not live to see the real scale of changes in tank design from his crude St. Chamond in WW1 through WW2, as he died on 8th April 1939 in Paris, a month before the Battle of France.

Perrinelle-Dumay Amphibious Heavy Tank by Pavel Alexe. Illustration funded through our Patreon campaign.

Specifications Perrinelle-Dumay tank

Crew est. 19 – 24. (estimated 13 x machine gunners, 6 front gunners, 2 rear gunners, driver, commander, rear observer, and up to two ‘stokers)
Dimensions (LxWxH) 19.7 x 3.0* x 3.7 m
Weight 84 tonnes
Armament 2 x 65 mm guns, 1 x 47 mm gun, 5 x machine guns
Armor Front and sides 60 – 80 mm
Rear unknown
Floor 30 mm
Roof 40 – 50 mm
Trench 5 meters
Wading infinite
Amphibian If made for floatation the width would be increased to an undisclosed dimension.

Malmassai, P. Un incroyable cuirasse terrestre Francais. Steelmasters magazine no.17.
Miscellaneous 65 mm guns
Naval School Traditions
Perinelle-Dumay (1933). Les chars de Combat 1933.

WW1 US Prototypes

Lyon’s Electric Gyro-Cruiser

United States of America (1916)
Landship – None Built

“Suppose Great Britain’s giant navy could now come up out of the sea into the plains of northern France and, mounting itself upon wheels, dash in single line formation at express train speed upon one single, unsuspecting and strategic point of Germany’s hundreds of miles of battle front”

—Lyon, E., February 1916

February 1916 marked one year since the formal British programme to resolve the problem of getting men across no-man’s land under cover of armor had begun. There were ideas for a variety of machines, including wheeled ones, but it was the tracks, first from Crompton and then by Tritton, which would win over ideas of wheeled armor on the battlefields of WW1.

None of this work would have been known to the common man in the street in February 1916, but the official embodiments of trying to use technology, armor, and guns to close on and destroy the enemy were equally in the common consciousness as well. The majority of these ideas would focus on wheels and the use of wheels was also seriously limited by their fundamental design. A wheel, by design, has a tiny area in contact with the ground. This can be improved by making the wheel wider and/or adding more wheels, but even a vehicle with multiple wheels will struggle to cross obstacles such as trenches and ramparts, as the climbing ability is approximately limited to a function depending on the height of the wheel. If, however, the wheel could be made not only wider but also substantially larger, then a wheeled vehicle might, perhaps, have been a solution?

Certainly, this was a regular train of thought for numerous designers of the period. One such example can be found in the pages of the February 1916 edition of the Electrical Experimenter, a popular periodical of the era. Featuring a gloriously bright and optimistic front cover of a giant machine happily crushing and/or variously shooting at the enemy, this was an eye-catching machine, resembling a giant armored motorbike more than a weapon of war. The design and ideas of the design certainly had some engineering skill within them, but the entirety of the idea was completely and utterly wrong. The tanks which appeared to the world in September 1916 would shake ideas of armor warfare in the common mind to the core and ideas like this giant wheeled contraption would, in less than a year, be little more than a rather silly and naive footnote.

Eric R. Lyon A.B. wrote several articles for the magazine. This gyro-cruiser in February 1916, and ‘Minic Atoms and their experimental formation’ was published in June 1916. He also designed a one-man electrically-operated submarine in 1917, which was at least of sensible proportions. As far as is known, he never tried to patent the design.

Front cover of the February 1916 edition of the Electrical Experimenter. Note that the flag shown on the fire control mast appears to be that of the British Merchant Navy, the reason for which is unclear. Source: Electrical Experimenter magazine, February 1916.


The basic shape of the machine was that of a motorbike, albeit one more akin to a Penny Farthing-style bicycle with a huge front wheel and smaller trailing wheel behind. Mounted onto these wheels was a huge body, with the bulk of it at the front, formed in a manner similar to that of the rounded front hull of a warship. This enormous triangular section at the front was rounded and bulbous at the base with vertical sides which then stepped-out to become even wider and formed a stepped platform onto which a series of turrets were arranged. In the center of this section was a raised platform above the level of those turrets, with a giant ‘crown’ turret on top. On top of this was a rangefinder and the entire design was overlooked by a gigantic mast arrangement projecting vertically from the back to a height well above the crown turret.

All of the machinery involved in the vehicle was contained inside and within the area occupied by the giant front wheel. The vehicle was to measure 160 feet (48.77 m) high to the rangefinder and 180 feet (54.86 m) to the top of the mast at the back. At 230 feet (70.10 m) long, the vehicle was at least proportional in its dimensions in terms of height to length, but the width was ‘just’ 86 feet (26.21 m) from side to side, meaning a rather narrow, very high, and extremely long machine. As might be suspected by a machine of such gargantuan proportions, it was going to be eye-wateringly heavy too, at 20,000 US tons (18,143.70 tonnes).

The vehicle was to operate on a pair of wheels simply because the maximum road width on which it might operate would limit the size of the wheels used. Placing wheels side by side would inherently create a wider track-width for them on the road, meaning one or more would have to be off-road all the time. Making it so that the single-width wheels were the whole ground-contact presence of the vehicle would therefore mean that a substantially larger vehicle could be used on a standard road than which could otherwise be achieved.

Side elevation of Lyon’s giant Gyro-Cruiser.
Source: Electrical Experimenter Magazine, February 1916.

This also meant the wheels used could be anywhere on a road from 25 to 50 feet (7.72 to 15.24 m) wide and to ensure it would not go over the width of the road, limiting the wheel width to a far more modest 25 feet (7.72 m).

A total of 6 ‘small’ turrets surrounded the platform at the top of the hull, each fitted with a pair of large guns and surmounted by a massive turret known as the ‘crown’ turret on top of the raised section between them. This ‘crown’ turret would measure 40 feet (12.19 m) in diameter and, on top of this huge turret, was a domed cupola. This cupola or mini-turret could independently rotate and housed a wide stereoscopic-type range finder. In front of the crown turret and not shown in the drawings was to be a huge spotlight for the illumination of the enemy.

It is noteworthy that the design, as drawn and explained inside the magazine and the artwork on the cover of the magazine, were different. In the cover artwork, just 6 turrets are shown, with a single large turret at the front and the crown turret on top. A close look at the layout drawing, however, shows that there would be no space for this single central front turret, as it would be in the space occupied by the large front wheel.

Front Wheel

The front wheel is worthy of attention in its own right, not least due to its preposterous dimensions and construction. Measuring some 108 feet (32.92 m) in diameter, this was not a wheel in the conventional sense, like that of a bicycle or motorbike, rotating around a central axle. In fact, there was no axle at all. The wheel was toroidal in shape, with a heavily armored steel tyre weighing 500 US tons (453.59 tonnes) in its own right. At 25 feet (7.62 m) wide, the wheel was certainly going to help spread the load of the vehicle, but it alone was going to weigh around 10% of the total mass, at 2,000 US tons (1,814,37 tonnes). This meant that, aside from the armor, another 1,500 US tons (1,360.78 tonnes) of material made up the structure of it.

This was because the wheel was not simply a wheel, but was also the stabilization mechanism for the vehicle and formed a colossal gyroscope. The wheel itself was to be hollow and allowed for the addition of giant hollow iron balls some 15 feet (4.57 m) in diameter which were faced with non-magnetic steel. Twelve such balls, each weighing 40 US tons (36.29 tonnes), would float freely within the liquid inside the wheel, held off from contact with the sides by magnetic forces and their own buoyancy of around 10 US tons (9.07 tonnes) per ball.

Cross-section of the giant gyroscopic wheel with its beveled and heavily armored outer face removed, showing the inner and outer liner of alternating magnetic coils and iron bands. The balls inside were hollow iron balls 15 feet (4.57 m) in diameter faced with nonmagnetic steel and which sat floating within the fluid filling of this toroidal wheel. Each ball was estimated to weigh some 40 US tons (36.29 tonnes) and produce 10 tons (9.07 tonnes) of buoyancy within the fluid.

With an outer diameter of 108’ (32.92 m) and an inner diameter of 50 feet (15.24 m), the volume of the torus is calculated using the formula V=(πr2)(2πR) to equal 5,353 m3. Deducting the volume of the dozen iron spheres (49.97 m3 each / 599.69 m3 total) leaves 4,753.31 m3 of space inside and this void was to be filled with fluid. The fluid initially selected was water. This volume of water would have weighed 4,753 tonnes. With 12 balls at 40 US tons (36.29 tonnes) and the armored tyre at 500 US tons (453.59 tonnes), this would have meant a total mass of 5,642 tonnes, nearly 3 times what was being proposed by Lyons in his guestimate of 2,000 US tons (1,814.37 tonnes). That gets worse when he suggests an alternative fluid filling for the wheel which…

“will be water, although hot, liquid-fusing metals may be later employed, or mercury…”

—Lyons, E., (February 1916)

Mercury, on top of being extremely toxic, is a liquid metal at room temperature and also 13.5 times denser (13.5 grams per milliliter) than water (1 gram per milliliter). That would mean a space of 4,753.31 m3 filled with mercury, would, aside from being a rolling ecological disaster waiting to happen, weigh 64,169 tonnes, more than 3 times the estimated complete weight for the vehicle!

The wheel, as already stated, was not to run on an axle. The space inside the wheel would be occupied by the powerplant. Instead, the wheel would be ‘attached’ to the body by a series of ball bearings running in a radial groove on the wheel so that it could rotate with the minimum of friction.

Power Plant

Little is mentioned of the power plant for the design, although a drawing in cross section was provided in the article. Located within the hull and surrounded by the wheel rotating around it, the form of power was primarily a large diesel engine producing 60,000 hp. Attached to this was a large electrical generator which could provide 40,000 hp, as well to drive the wheel via 2-speed multi-polar motors, each of which was 70 feet (71.34 m) in diameter. Drive of the wheel was provided electrically, as the torroid of the wheel was ringed in, banded by sections of magnets and non-magnetic metal, whereby the ring of the wheel was moved by the motors. This presumably would also function as the braking system for the wheel, although this was not mentioned by Lyons.

Rear Wheel

At the rear of this machine was the ‘small’ wheel, measuring just 60 feet (18.29 m) in diameter. This wheel not only assisted in balancing the machine, but also provided the steering for the machine. It was fixed to the rear part of the body, operating on a normal fixed type axle and relied upon this rear part of the vehicle to be able to move independently of the front part. Like the front wheel, this wheel was also to be clad in heavy steel armor plating and was to be bevel shaped.

Due to the weight and size of the wheel, steering of this tail section and wheel would have to be done in some means, such as hydraulic pumps or electric motors.

In cross-section, the scale of Lyon’s folly is obvious with a huge, heavy, and overly narrow vehicle overly laded with heavy firepower. Towing over its surroundings, like this 50 foot (15.24 m) tree or comparatively ant-sized soldier (next to the base of the wheel), the vehicle was a giant target for even the most skillless of an enemy.
Source: Electrical Experimenter, February 1916.


As usual with some of these giant vehicle ideas, the designer got a little carried away with overly optimistic performance figures and Lyon here is no exception. Lyon estimated a top speed of 60 mph (96.56 km/h) which, for a vehicle weighing several thousand tons, would be as remarkable as it is improbable on land.

Lyon calculated that rotating the giant wheel just 15 or 16 times a minute was sufficient and this is borne out by checking his math. With a diameter of 32.92 m, the radius would be 16.45 m. The circumference (2πr) of the giant wheel would therefore be 103.4 m. At 15 revolutions per minute, this means 15 x 103.4 m = 1,551 m, 1.55 km per minute, or 15 x 60 x 103.4 m per hour = 93,060 meters per hour; or 93.1 km/h, which is roughly 57.8 mph.

The motors would have had 2 speed settings, with the low speed setting for operating on steep slopes uphill or downhill and the high speed for flat hard ground.


A big vehicle is a tempting repository for the designer to install as much armament as possible and, indeed, Lyon did just that. This vehicle would truly be the giant battleship mounting a full set of no less than twelve 17-inch (431.8 mm) guns, this ludicrous armament was arranged in pairs across the six small turrets.

Each of the side turrets was clearly drawn in the cross-section, showing a pair of these guns. The ‘crown’ turret on top of the hull, however, was not armed with these huge guns. Instead, it was to use a single machine gun, not firing bullets, but something much larger. This ‘machine gun’ was effectively an enlarged version of the classical style of ‘Gatling’ gun with multiple barrels rotating and firing in turn, except that, instead of rifle-caliber barrels rotating, this weapon was to use 6-inch (152.4 mm) caliber rifles. Fired electrically, a single man would be able to operate the gun although how it, or the 17-inch (431.8 mm) were to be fed with ammunition was not addressed.

Aiming for the guns was to be addressed by means of the fire controller, working from the top of the mast in coordination with the commander in the ‘crown’ turret and the use of the rangefinder. This rangefinder was 160 feet (48.77 m) above the ground, more than high enough to see over trees and obstacles. The reason for this height is not speculated upon, but probably, coincidentally, it was almost precisely the same height as the top of the nave on a cathedral, like Beauvais in France, at 47.5 m. If nothing else, this comparison provides an indication of the ridiculous proportions for this vehicle.

Around the lower part of the hull were what appears to be some weapons as well. These are not described at all in the document. Despite this, two projections which appear to be guns project directly from the front, one about half way up the hull and the other just at the top of the rounded part of the lower hull. Three more circular features are also apparent in this lower section, around from the front to the sides of the vehicle. They may also be weapons ports but, once more, cannot be confirmed.

In the rounded lower part of the hull are what appear to be weapon ports. Source: Electrical Experimenter Magazine, February 1916.


No armor other than ‘thick’ or ‘heavy’ is mentioned, but given that the big front wheel itself was to have 500 US tons of protection (probably for the best if it was filled with mercury), then heavy armor would be needed elsewhere. This enormous machine would be a target even the semi-literate half conscious enemy gunner might hit with zero effort, so if it was not to be destroyed very easily, then it would have needed substantial armor plating. Given all of the naval sized ammunition it would have to carry, it would also have to have a magazine of some sort. On a warship, if it was compromised, it could flood the magazine with sea water to prevent explosion. No such possibility would exist for this vehicle, so the designer would either have to accept the possibility of several thousand tons of mercury being blasted all over northern
France when his vehicle’s armor got breached, or else have provided substantially thicker armor than would otherwise be acceptable – several inches at least.


Other than a command staff of some sort operating a bridge inside the crown turret, there appears to have been little if any consideration of a crew. Whatever that crew may have been would not have been small. With 12 main guns, multiple smaller guns, a command team, probably some mechanics, drivers, spotters, ammunition handlers, etcetera to add into the count, at least a hundred men are likely to have been needed.


It is hard to take the design seriously or even semi-seriously. Even Lyon must have accepted, like others, that such gargantuan vehicles might make attractive and eye-catching cover art, but not practical vehicles.

For the cost in material of a warship or three, hundreds of men needed for the vehicle, and the vast problems which would come with even just trying to move the vehicle to where it might be used without crushing everything on its way into oblivion, the investment would simply be redundant. The vehicle was a huge target and the guns were positioned far too high up to be usefully depressed to actually fight the enemy it was rolling over/past. The stabilization might have been viable for a machine in theoretical terms using a gyroscope. In fact, in this regard, the design was rather clever, but the scale is devoid of and detached from reality. It is not even clear if the vehicle would be able to remain in any state other than one of perpetual motion or risk toppling over. In light of the total impracticality of the concept, it seems likely this idea was just a desperate attempt to try and envisage a means by which technology, armor, guns, and mechanical traction could somehow break the deadlock of trench warfare.

The correct answer would be unveiled several months later and this idea, like so many others, were quite rightly consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas.

Lyon’s electric Gyro-Cruiser by Pavel Alexe. Illustration funded through our Patreon campaign.

Specifications: Lyon’s Electric Gyro-Cruiser

Armament 12 x 17-inch (432 mm) guns, 1 x rotating 6-inch (152 mm) gun
Length 230 feet (70.10 m)
Height 160 feet (48.77 m) to the range finder. 180 feet (54.86 m) to top of fire control mast body
Width of wheel 25 feet (7.62 m)
Total width 86 feet (26.21 m)


Lyon, E. (1916). The Electric Gyro-Cruiser. Electrical Experimenter Magazine, February 1916.
Secor, H. (1917). A one-man electric submarine. Electrical Experimenter Magazine, May 1917.