WW1 British Prototypes

Atherton’s Mobile Fort

United KingdomBritish Empire (1916)
Heavy tank – design only

Tanks, the new wonder weapons of mechanical inspiration, armored leviathans running on steel tracks to smash their way through German positions on the Western Front, were first used at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15th September 1916. Straight afterward, rumors of this new weapon started to circulate amongst the Central Powers and in the minds of the general public in Britain, France, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the first public airing of a photograph of a tank did not get published until 22nd November that year. Yet, although the idea of an armored mechanical war weapon was not new and had appeared in both serious and some far less serious versions, including science-fiction stories beforehand, this was not the first use and first publicity which had the tank or ‘landship’ seize the imagination of the home front. It is then perhaps ironic or just coincidentally timed that Percy William Atherton, a London-based engineer, submitted a completely independent design for a giant wheeled land machine clad in armor and fitted with turrets exactly one week prior to the action at Flers Courcelette.

The Man

Percy William Atherton is not a well-known name in tank design or military circles. Indeed, he is elusive in the historical record save for a patent filed in November 1900 for an improved type of rim for pneumatic tires.

At the time of filing an application for that patent, he was already engaged as an engineer by profession and provided an address on Tenison Street, York Road, London – an area of the Southbank just north of Waterloo Railway Station.

In 1901, still with the address at Tenison Street, he filed another patent, this time for gloves or mittens which allowed their finger and/or thumb to be exposed without taking them off. He was now providing his occupation as a consulting engineer.

Looking over the area to the South East, the 19th Century terraces of Howley Terrace and the neighboring Street, Tenison Street was utterly devastated during the Blitz, as seen in this 1949 photograph. The spire on the skyline is that of St. Johns at Waterloo. The area was demolished for the Festival of Britain 1951. Source:

In 1908, Atherton revealed that he was obviously doing reasonably well financially, as he was the owner of a 3 cylinder 12 hp Clyde motor car (Clyde Motor Company Ltd. Leicester) and managed to entangle himself in an argument in a contemporary periodical over opinions on the reliability of the aforementioned brand of vehicle. Other than this, all that can be deduced at this time is that sometime between 1908 and 1916, he took a contract to work in British India as an engineer for the Public Works Department (P.W.D.) and was living at Shorkot Road Junction, Punjab, India – about halfway between Faisalabad and Multan in modern-day Pakistan. When, in September 1916, he gave this occupation, he also provided a UK address in Gloucester Street, Warwick Square, Westminster, London, southeast of the modern-day Victoria Coach Station.

He was also now a member of the Institute of Municipal Engineers (IMunE.), an organization which eventually (1978) merged with the Institute of Civil Engineers (I.C.E.), showing that he had continued to progress in his skills as an engineer. With a war waging in Europe and with his home nation forces stalled against a seemingly impenetrable wall of German wire and machine guns, Atherton turned his engineering skills to consider a mechanical solution to the problem.

The Design

Regardless of whatever engineering skills, training, abilities, or experiences he had by 1916, Atherton designed what has to rank as one of the most ludicrous wheeled vehicles ever proposed for any purpose – let alone military ones.

It is important to see that, whilst the wheels in themselves are ridiculous in proportion to the vehicle they are carrying, they are also ridiculous in their own right as they were to be up to 300 feet (91.4 m) in diameter. This was no armored car – it was meant as more of a wheeled warship and only half as sensible as that sounds.

The overall premise resembled a narrow pram or pushchair with ridiculously large wheels. Instead of a baby carriage, however, Atherton proposed not much shy of a dreadnaught mounted within these wheels. He described this heavily armed body mounted in that manner with four or maybe more wheels where the body of the vehicle actually lay above the axis of rotation of the wheels.

The body itself was essentially rectangular with a rounded front and rear and topped with turrets. The motive power driving the vehicle was pictured as being fairly rudimentary, with a clearly drawn drive belt or chain running from the center point on each side of the body to the rear axle.

Side view of Atherton’s Self-Propelled Fort from British Patent GB125610 of 1916. Digitally cleaned by the author.
Plan view of Atherton’s Self-Propelled Fort from British Patent GB125610 of 1916. Digitally cleaned by the author.

Inside the hull, there were to be several floors (decks), with the primary magazine located in the center for protection and surrounded by drinking water tanks and hydraulic equipment. The drinking water served both to provide fresh water for the crew but also allowed the magazine to be flooded, just like on a warship, to prevent an explosion.


Atherton’s fort, in the tradition of the amateur inventor, was to be excessively well-armed, mounting no less than four turrets along with the heaviest possible guns – the sort normally fitted into fixed concrete mountings. These were to be complemented by an array of guns of other smaller calibers, and a slew of Maxim-type machine guns, as may be deemed necessary. He did not specify what size these guns were to be, but four turrets are clearly shown in the plan view with a pair of large guns each, for a total of 8. These guns would have been large, not only because of the scale at which they are drawn in relation to the massive vehicle but also because he carefully noted the use of hydraulic or other equipment to assist in the loading of the ammunition. Clearly, Atherton had some level of knowledge of loading large guns, presumably of a naval nature, but he also quite evidently had zero practical understanding of not only the issues of command and control over such a plethora of weapons but also the limitation of them.

He had made an obvious and conscious effort to avoid the turrets interfering with each other so that the gun turrets being rotated could not accidentally strike another turret, yet the central two turrets are close enough that they could, in theory, have clashed barrels if, for whatever reason, the leading central turret was rotated all the way to the rear. As shown in the side view by Atherton, although turrets 1 and 4 (front and rear, respectively) are positioned along the longitudinal axis of the hull, turrets 2 and 3 (the central pair) are offset to the left and right respectively. This is unlikely to be a mistake on such a simple drawing and is more likely to be an attempt to allow the guns to fire past each other to the front without causing interference. However, as each turret was more than half the width of the body, this was still not possible.

One final note on the turret size and position is that turrets 1 and 4 are clearly shorter than numbers 2 and 3, in what might be assumed was an attempt to allow the central turrets to fire over the top of them. However, the low position of the guns in all four turrets, as illustrated in the side elevation of the design, would preclude this and the purpose of the central turrets being taller is therefore unclear.

Atherton was vague on the turrets when he described that they may be arranged so as to deliver fire close to the machine. This presumably would require some turrets underneath for that purpose. He did mention, however, that a second battery of guns could be fitted at the ends and/or along the sides of the hull to provide fire at up to -45 degrees, although this would still leave a large dead zone directly underneath.

As well as all of the big guns and anti-infantry smaller guns, there was provision for anti-aircraft guns on the roof of the fort, although the author mentions no number or type. In perhaps the first hint of Atherton running out of ideas for new and fabulous weapons he could burden this already implausible machine with, he proposed that it could be used to discharge poisonous gases, although they would obviously have to be heavier than air in order to sink from the hull to the ground to affect the enemy troops below.


With an appreciation for its huge size and enormous weight, Atherton suggested its construction along similar lines to ships which weighed “thousands of tons” i.e. in a dockyard-type setting and built upon stocks – angled wooden poles. Parts for the vehicle and sections would then be moved into place using large rolling cranes, such as those of the Goliath-type. The crane would, however, have had to have been a monster in its own right, as the stocks would have to be tall enough to hold up the bottom of the hull so that the wheels could be put on i.e. they needed to be roughly as tall as the radius of the wheels. The hull, on top of this, meant more height and this Goliath-type crane Atherton was proposing would therefore have to straddle all of those parts in order to be able to lift and move items like guns, engines, and turrets into place.

It is perhaps for that reason that Atherton suggested the use of ‘pits’ alongside the stocks during construction to lower the overall height of the works being performed. Even so, this massive machine was still going to be a gargantuan operation to fabricate.

The Stothert and Pitt-made Goliath gantry crane was capable of a standard load of 250 tons (254 tonnes) and is seen here during testing at Shoeburyness in 1922 with a 300-ton (305 tonnes) test load of battleship guns. The small objects in front are people, as is the operator stood on top, following all of the appropriate health and safety rules of the era. This enormous crane cost GBP£14,000 in 1922 (around GBP £800,000 in 2020 values).
The true scale of the engineering involved in the crane suggested by Atherton is illustrated by the giant snatch block for the Goliath crane, as seen in 1922 at Shoeburyness. Source: Andrews and Burroughs


Although construction was to follow a battleship in terms of the use of the stocks and crane methods, the whole machine was, Atherton said, to be narrower than such a vessel, so as to allow it to be transported in floating docks if required. This could be forgone, however, if the wheels were made 300 feet (91.4 m) in diameter, as with wheels of this size, “the forts could cross for instance the English Channel with its maximum depth of 120 feet [36.6 m]”
This statement from Atherton has to be evaluated in itself, as it is not strictly correct. Topographical maps of the seafloor of the English Channel show that he would only be correct on this maximum depth in the region between around Beachy Head on the English South Coast and to the East up towards Dover. On the French side, a crossing from that point would have to land in France somewhere between around the mouth of the River Somme and Calais. Should Atherton’s enormous machine have tried to drive across the channel any further to the West in the English Channel, he would have floundered, as depths reach 120 meters or more in places, more than twice the wading capability of his concept.

Depth f of the English Channel shown by colour with red and yellow being the shallowest areas and blue to dark blue the deepest parts. Atherton’s design would have been limited to just the narrow section in the East of the channel. Source: Mellet, Hodgson, Plater et al. (2013)

Added to this depth calculation is that he was trying to make an allowance of sinkage into the seabed by the wheels of up to 30 feet (9.1 m). Assuming a wheel diameter of 300 feet (91.4 m) and this sinkage allowance of 30 feet (9.1 m), this means a maximum wading depth to the bottom of the hull as follows:

300’/2 – 30’ = 120 feet (36.6 m)

In order to assure safety and knowing the depth of the English Channel, this very much limited Atherton’s potential wading crossing to the area mentioned above and even then, the hull would, at times, be in the water.

Not only were the wheels to be up to 300 feet (91.4 m) in diameter, but each one was to be 30 feet (9.1 m) wide and the rearmost clearly also had a pronounced central circumferential rib, like the wheels on a tractor. With four wheels, this meant a surface contact area, when sunk to a depth of 10 feet (3.0 m), of 3,600 sq. ft. (334.5 m2). Working on a basis of soil being able to take a load of approximately 0.75 ton per sq. ft., Atherton calculated the four-wheeled fort could weigh up to 10,800 tons (10,973 tonnes), as each wheel could support a load of 2,700 tons (2,743 tonnes).

To reduce weight, Atherton proposed that rather than have the wheels be solid, they should be made in the form of giant cables made from “plough steel” tensioned between the centre and the rim to form spokes. Twice as many spokes would be fitted than were actually needed to support the weight of the machine in order to create a factor of safety should some be damaged by enemy gun fire or damage. Each spoke would be connected to the hub by a bolt and meet the rim at a large eye-bolt and the face of the wheel in contact with the ground would project past the bolts, holding these in place. This was effectively described as similar to that used in bicycle wheels and allowed for tensioning of each spoke as required. The actual rim itself would be made from multiple corrugated steel plates overlapping and bolted to each other and use a series of box girders to form a tread on the wheel.

Made in this way, these huge wheels provided an armored tread surface whilst being open and as light as possible in construction. Their size allowed for a ditch some 50 feet (15.24 m) wide and 50 feet (15.24 m) deep to be crossed with relative ease. This would be more than enough to simply drive over a huge barrier like a river or the Albert Canal, which at a modest 3.4 m deep and 24 m wide, would barely get the wheels wet.


Atherton was vague on the protection level he expected for this huge rolling target. The only comment on the armor in general was that it must be of “thickness that it cannot be penetrated by projectiles from such [large calibre] guns.”

When it came to overhead protection, Atherton was a little more descriptive. He proposed an armored roof with a layer of sand “a few feet in thickness” or made with sandbags. With the vehicle being as much as 400 feet (122 m) or so long and 50 feet (15 m) wide, a layer of sandbags even just 2 feet (0.6 m) thick would mean 40,000 cu.ft. (1,133 m3) – roughly 1,850 tonnes of sand.

Other Equipment

On top of a veritable plethora of guns and a small army to crew them, Atherton proposed some other essential features as well. First was a wireless telegraph – something which up to that point was definitely a novel idea in a military vehicle and one of the very very few worthy features of the design. To aid in signalling to friendly forces, the vehicle would also have a semaphore system and other manual signalling apparatus.

Due to the huge size of the fort, it was able to carry within, on top, or perhaps slung along its length, a series of secondary craft. These were to include small motor craft for use on water, motor vehicles, and even its own aircraft.

For the former, a section of the floor of the hull would open up to allow them to be lowered to the ground or water surface. For the latter, a hydraulically-actuated side panel could be used to deploy the aircraft, although details of this terrifying prospect for the pilot were omitted, as well as any idea for how they may get back on board.

As can be imagined, this vehicle served not only as a direct engine of war for bringing destructive firepower to bear on the enemy, or to cross enemy wire, trenches and vehicles under its mighty wheels, but also to be able to stop and deliver troops and equipment. The same type of lowering flap which could deliver vehicles to the ground could also open to allow a series of mechanical lifts operating down a heavily armored slide to discharge an undisclosed number of troops, animals, or stores.


The designer was clearly familiar in technical terms with the fundamentals of how a wheeled motor vehicle was driven, both by his own patent prior to this one discussing automotive matters, and his ownership of a motor car.

Separate engines were to be used within Atherton’s fort, with each unit driving one wheel at the back. Steering was to be carried out by means of hydraulic jacks which would push each wheel on its bearing to turn slightly in the desired direction. These hydraulic rams were to be provided with their own engine, each modified from the type used on board a large ship, but could be controlled by a hydraulic system, electricity, or steam.

The primary engines for Atherton’s fort were to be either of the steam-boiler type or internal combustion type, although he expressed the view that the internal-combustion type may be unsuitable due to the low torque it produced at low speeds.

Cooling was to be done by water with a plentiful supply for the machine when under steam crossing something like the English Channel. Excess coolant water would be jetted vertically onto the hull in a manner he described as serving “as a protection from plunging fire or bombs dropped by airships or aeroplanes” although how this was to work is unclear.

Coal for the engines (or liquid fuel in the event an internal combustion engine was to be used) would be stored in the lower decks of the hull, along with the gearing and machinery of the vehicle.


In actual use, the proposal for the fort seems to have been relatively simplistic, consisting of not much more than driving your protected bulk at the enemy, relying on its sheer mass and size to remove obstacles and to crush enemy positions – and that is about it as far as logic is concerned. Once static, the vehicle would almost be a kind of forward base from which troops and even aircraft could operate.

One particular mode of operation Atherthon proposed was to operate two such machines alongside each other, dragging a huge giant chain or series of grapples, with which wire obstacles could be dragged away and destroyed, similar to the Schuman super dreadnought.


Atherton, like so many of those who embarked on designing the enormous weapons of war, kept adding features often in order to overcome some serious shortcomings of the design. For example, the vehicle was so big it could not protect itself close by, so a second belt of guns was needed, and it was so high a complex series of lifts and winching was needed to be able to deliver troops.

The mass of Atherton’s fort is roughly the same as a British County-lass cruiser of WW2, but this fort was no agile warship at sea. Driving slowly through deep water, it would have been limited to channels which were not too deep or rutted for the wheels, with little or no ability to manoeuvre. Waddling slowly though something like the English Channel, it would have been a sitting duck for any enemy warship with a vaguely competent crew.

The fort would have fared no better on land either. Being well over 100 m high, the commander of the fort would have been able to see up to 36 km (22 miles) on flat terrain, but likewise he could also be seen from that far away. That is, assuming for a moment that the fort would move, not fall over, nor become hopelessly bog down, or just fall apart.

Given the nonsensical size of the wheels, which appear to have served just the single purpose of permitting a haphazard and improbable crossing of a particular stretch of water (The English Channel), Atherton had created the rest of the vehicle around that premise and, in doing so, managed to design a vehicle as unsteady as a one legged man after a hard night on the drink. Extremely high, with a huge mass on very light (proportionally) wheels, Atherton created a vehicle which would inevitably topple over sideways on the first side gradient it might encounter or even just on soft ground, where the wheels on one side sink slightly more. The centre of gravity of the vehicle is simply too high to be even vaguely practicable and, whilst he may indeed have been correct on the issue of sinkage, he utterly failed to grasp the toppling issue, the problems of propelling and even stopping such a gargantuan and heavy machine and on top of that – how on Earth it was meant to steer.

The machine from Atherton was likely submitted, like so many inventors before and subsequently, with the best of intentions, but it is hard to fathom whether he truly believed it would ever be built in any form. This was simply not what the British needed in WW1 – they already had no real problems with crossing the English Channel anyway, as they dominated the seas, so the primary purpose of the huge wheels was pointless. The idea of cramming hundreds or even a thousand men into one of these machines was also not going to find favour with the British high command, as it squandered the single most vital resource of the war – men. The British had plenty of ships and even naval guns, but the incredible volume of resources this would have consumed could easily have been turned into thousands of rifles, bombs, tanks, and bullets. On top of this, there were simply not spare thousands of men which would have been needed. The design was simply too wasteful, too preposterous, too big, too crude, and too ill-considered to ever gain any traction with any authorities even if it had ever been brought to their attention.

Post-World War I, what became of Atherton is unclear. Certainly, if he enlisted at some point, he survived or is somehow unrecorded by the Common War Graves Commission as a death in either WW1 or WW2. No further patents were submitted in his name and he appears to have disappeared into history. His fort, thankfully, disappeared as well, as the appearance of actual tanks ended many such ideas of fantastical, outlandish, and frankly, ill-conceived giant wheeled vehicles.

While looking like an undersized cart in this side profile, Atherton’s mobile fort was meant to be 150 meters high and cross the English channel on its own wheels. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.

 Atherton’s Mobile Fort specifications

Dimensions Up to 150 m high and est. 15 m wide.
Wheels: 300’ (91.4 m) diameter, 30’ (9.1 m) wide
 Weight Up to 10,800 tons (10,973 tonnes)
Crew Hundreds
Propulsion Steam boilers or internal combustion type
Armament 4 primary turrets with a pair of large caliber guns
Secondary belt of smaller guns
Multiple Maxim machine guns
Poison gas projector/s
Armor Heavy armor including a sand-filled or sandbag roof, and water jets
Total production None Built



WW1 British Prototypes

Macfie’s Landship 1916-17

British Empire (1916-17)
Design Only

Many of the early ideas for armored land warfare which were suggested to break the stalemate of trench warfare in WW1 were impractical, outlandish, or otherwise beyond the technology of the day. Indeed, for a new type of warfare, a new type of weapon was needed and several nations had come to this conclusion at around the same time. With any new technology, there are also those ideas that were, in hindsight, totally useless, and likewise, those whose potential was not exploited. One design and one man which were not exploited for their potential were the 1916-7 landship and its designer, Robert Macfie.

As an early proponent of tracked warfare, the American-born Robert Macfie had managed, by the end of 1915, to achieve little more than making sure that the official British work on Landships would be track-based rather than wheel-based. His own work had been ignored, sidelined and then either stolen or copied. His career in the military was a flop and his commission had been cancelled, so on the face of it, Robert Macfie should have stopped working on tracked vehicles and focussed his attention elsewhere. However, Macfie was a stubborn man, and stubbornness can lead to both success and failure in life in equal measure. Not content with the multiple rebuttals for his work up to that point, Macfie had one final tracked vehicle endeavor up his sleeve, the culmination of all of this development work up to that point.

A New Beginning

Almost a year after his initial design and 12 months after his military career had ended, Macfie had submitted a second landship design with improved features. The new and improved vehicle shared some features of the 1916 design, such as having multiple tracks, but it would not have the complex nose-mounted track-bogey of the previous vehicle. Instead, the vehicle was to use a permanently elevated lead track described as:

“a self-propelled vehicle, of an endless portable track mounted at the front of the vehicle in such a position (for example sloping forwardly and upwardly) as to provide a driving means which can engage a steep bank or like obstacle, and means for coupling the said track to the engine of the vehicle”


Along with the permanently fixed and elevated lead bogey, the general shape was also different. The sides were parallel for the portions along the main pair of tracks, which were at the back, but after this, the shape became a wedge pointing forwards with the elevated track at the front point. A pair of large sponsons were located at the back, one on each side. Traction was provided by means of four tracks. Two at the back for propulsion, a third track located ahead of those on a steerable bogey and which provided the steering for the vehicle, and the fourth set at the front elevated at about 60 degrees to assist in climbing.

Drawings of Macfie’s December 1916 design, from his 1917 US Patent application.
Drawings of Macfie’s December 1916 design, from his 1917 US Patent application.

Unlike the 1916 design, there was no provision here for lowering armored shields over the tracks to protect them or to create a mobile fort. With this new and improved layout, Macfie clearly felt the old and complex shields were now superfluous as:

“The [new] general arrangement, moreover, renders it more easy to provide effective shields for the portable tracks”


Having first submitted this design in December 1916, Macfie submitted an amendment six-months later in May 1917, making it clear that the body he had outlined could actually be made in any desired manner, armored, and armed with machine guns and other weapons such as artillery. The power-plant for the vehicle was specifically omitted just as before because the patent and intention were more concerned with the overall layout of a vehicle and the use of steering bogies and raised front tracks.

Mounted in the sponsons at the back, the weapons would have been able to provide fire across a wide arc on both sides of the vehicle. Despite the angled shape of the design, these sponsons would still not be able to fire directly to the front. In keeping with the ‘tanks’ which had, by this time, appeared in the popular press, side-mounted sponsons would be able to fire down the length of a trench as the vehicle crossed it.


This landship from December 1916 was much more clearly thought out than his January 1916 version and much less complex in terms of gearing. Although Macfie did not file a patent application in the United States for the January 1916 landship, he did file one for the December 1916 landship, filing it in September 1917. That application was filed not just in his name, but in conjunction with Traction Development Limited. When, less than a week later, he also filed the design for a patent in France, it was only in the name of the company, suggesting that Macfie may have sold the rights to the design, perhaps because he was in financial difficulty.

This design was, compared to his other designs, the best of the bunch, with a more practical and less complicated layout, armament mounted in sponsons, and a special nose track for climbing which was simpler than his 1916 design. Even so, it met with no more success than his other ideas. The patent applications in France, Britain, and the USA would indicate that Macfie was seeking some other potential markets for his ideas, but with a functional ‘tank’ already in operation on the Western Front by this time, it is hard to see why anyone would go for a totally new and untested design. As such, Macfie was left, by the end of the war, having not produced a single functional vehicle. He was awarded a pittance by the post-war inquiry into the invention of tanks and shortly after returned to the USA, no doubt a bitter and disappointed man. Robert Macfie died on 9th February 1948 in New York, aged just 67 years old, having lived long enough to see the tanks he helped to originate become the dominant land weapon of the age.

Illustration of Macfie’s 1916-17 Landship Design, produced by Mr. R. Cargill, funded by our Patreon Campaign.


Armament Machine guns, artillery or other
Armor Bulletproof


Hills, A. (2019). Robert Macfie, Pioneers of Armour Vol.1. FWD Publishing, USA 
British Patent GB124450 ‘Improvements in or relating to Motor-Vehicles’. Filed 3rd January 1916, Accepted 3rd April 1919
US Patent US1298366 ‘Motor Vehicle’. Filed 4th September 1917, Accepted 25th March 1919
Proceedings of the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors: tank 1918-1920

Robert Macfie (Pioneers of Armour)
Robert Macfie (Pioneers of Armour)

By Andrew Hills

The foundations and principles of modern armoured warfare did not appear out of a vacuum, and nor did the machines of WW1 and WW2. Their development was full of false starts, failed ideas, and missed opportunities. Robert Macfie was a pioneer in aviation at the turn of the century followed by work with the Landships Committee on tracked vehicles to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Although his tank designs never saw combat the work he started was carried on by other pioneers and helped to usher in a dawn of armoured and mechanised warfare.

Buy this book on Amazon!

WW1 British Prototypes

Macfie’s Landship 1916

UK United Kingdom (1916)
Design Only

It has been over a century since the guns of WW1 fell silent. A war best known for mostly static trench warfare on the Western Front in France and Belgium as the great Empires of Britain, France, and German slugged out a 4 year-long brutal slaughter. In the immediate aftermath of this war, one of the things done to return to normality for the British was to assign credit to the designers, inventors, and engineers who invented, designed and built many of the key weapons which had led to ultimate victory over Germany. This, of course, included the question over who invented the ‘tank’ and involved dozens of separate claimants to the title. When it was all done, some names, like Tritton, d’Eyncourt, Churchill, and Swinton became very well known for their part. Several men were to receive scant attention and credit for their part in the process and one of them was Robert Macfie. Robert Macfie is a virtually unknown name even to people with an extensive reading or knowledge of armored warfare, yet he fills in a gap in the evolution of tracked warfare at a time before tanks even existed in anything like the form we know them today. A strong advocate for tracked armored vehicles even before the existence of the Landships Committee, Macfie was to design a series of landships for the British war effort, although post-war these were almost completely forgotten.

The Man

Born on 11th November 1881 in San Francisco, the American-born son of a sugar baron with financial interests in the Caribbean and Hawaii, Macfie took an interest in military matters outside of the family sugar business. Aged just 17 or 18 years old, he enrolled in the Royal Naval Engineering College, at Davenport, England, studying naval design. After this, he went back to help with the family’s sugar business before settling in Chicago in 1902.

Around this time, he began an interest in aviation and was back in Britain by 1909 building his own aircraft and testing it at Fambridge in Essex. It was during his endeavors in the then-brand-new field of aviation that he met Thomas Hetherington, a man later connected with landships in his own right.

His attempts at getting into the aviation business, however, were not a success. He was back on the family sugar plantations in the years before the outbreak of war and it was there that he became acquainted with the Holt agricultural tractor. When war was declared in August 1914, Macfie and his knowledge of tracked vehicles returned to Britain once more. He immediately sought out his contacts from his aviation days advocating for the use of Holt-based tracked vehicles, advocacy which persuaded him to enlist in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (R.N.V.R.) in October 1914.

With his experience, he was brought to the first meeting of the Landships Committee on 22nd February 1915. That though was his only attendance at the committee. After that, he was sidelined to a project working for the Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.) on a tracked truck. When that project fell apart, in acrimony with the firm building the vehicle, Macfie was essentially a man without a project. His commission was terminated in December 1915 and his military career was over. Just two weeks after the end of his commission, he filed for a patent innocuously titled ‘Improvements in or relating to Motor-vehicles’. At this time he was still giving his occupation as that of a Mechanical Engineer living at 3 Kingsway, London. The purpose of the design was a completely new style of landship, unlike anything before and the culmination of his work and theorizing into the problems associated with tracked armored vehicles to that point. Specifically, the design was described as an “improved vehicle is particularly suitable for use as an armoured car in warfare”


The 1916 landship from Macfie was mounted on a pair of bogies carrying portable track (or tracks) which was held separate to the body. This allowed the bogies to turn independently of the body of the vehicle, and of each other, in order to facilitate steering and with the front end of the vehicle pivoted on the lead bogie. The bogies could also turn together which would allow for sharper turns. The front bogie was mounted on a pivot along a horizontal beam which allowed it to move in the vertical dimension. This additional degree of movement enabled the lead tracks to remain in contact with the ground even when coming into contact with a steep incline, such as a riverbank or parapet.

Macfie does not mention what sort of track system was to be used, but he was an avowed fan of the Holt system. Prior to the war, he had gained experience of Holt tractors and the drawings he provided are suggestive of this system as well. It could be reasonably expected therefore that any tracklayer system he was considering would be similar to or based upon the Holt system.

The Holt track system was produced in various lengths like this short section but following the same principle. It was slow and prone to allowing the track to drop away from the wheels when unsupported. Nonetheless, it was a very popular system prior to the war and the basis for numerous designs both practical and otherwise. Source: Author’s own

This vertical movement of the lead bogey was controlled by means of a large screw jack attached to a rotating mounting within the front part of the vehicle. Turns of the nut on this screw jack, mounted on the floor of the compartment, pushed more of the vertical threaded screw downwards which pushed down the rear of the front bogey. With the pivot in front of this position, this action served to raise the front of the tracks. Elevation range appears to be in the region of 0 to +45 degrees.

What sounded good in theory was not necessarily practical or possible with the technology and materials of the time though. To add extra complexity, Macfie (a tried Naval engineer) also suggested making the lower part of the body of the vehicle watertight so it would float. Able to traverse open water or rivers, Macfie envisaged the use of a propeller mounted at the back powered from the engine. This was an improvement on his 1915 design, as this propeller was able to be stowed vertically, whereas it was fixed in the ‘down’ position in the 1915 design.

The vehicle was to be driven by “an internal combustion engine or other motor driving wheels around which the portable track passes”

Macfie’s design of January 1916 from the British Patent.


The overall shape of the machine was that of a large box with a pitched roof and pointed front. The sides were flat and vertical topped with an angled roof where the body was over the tracks of the rear bogie. At the front, the roofline dipped down to join the pointed front of the vehicle, forming a wedge shape. In front of the leading edge of the body of the vehicle was a large vertical wire cutter made from overlapping triangular blades. This device was very similar in appearance to that trialed on the Italian Pavesi Autocarro Tagliafili (Pavesi Wire Cutting Machine) and the French Breton-Pretot Wire Cutting Machine, although there is nothing known to suggest a link between any of those designs and this one.

Ahead of the wire cutter, attached to the lead bogey, was an armored box with a pointed face that was adjustable.


When stationary, the landship served the role of a fortification. Within the body of the landship was a large set of shields that could be lowered to cover the rear bogey, and that pointed box at the front of the lead bogey could likewise be lowered. This lowering method for the body and nose was intended to protect the tracks from enemy fire when the vehicle was stationary.


No specific armament was mentioned in Macfie’s 1916 patent application other than allowing for the use of “fire-arms or guns from the interior of the vehicle”. Based on his 1915 design and the prevailing thought of the time, armament was likely limited to a pair of machine guns on each side and a series of loopholes along the sides for troops within to fire from.


No specific crew is mentioned, but a review of the design shows the need for a single driver at the front and at least another in the rear to control the rear bogey. A third man may have been required to operate the wheels controlling the elevation of the lead bogey meaning at least 2 or 3 men would be required to steer the vehicle. With a commander and at least one gunner for each machine gun, that would make a minimum crew of around 7 men with space in the back for maybe 20 or so men.


Macfie’s January 1916 design was amended in April 1916, improving the design in several areas. Firstly, the amendment clarified details of the elevation mechanism for the front bogey making it clear that it could be provided with a locking system to hold it in an elevated position even during steering. The wire cutters which had been drawn in January were explained as well. Macfie was in doubt as to the importance of the machine to be able to cut its way through “barbed wire networks”. Any wire encountered by this vehicle would be guided by the shape of the nose which was drawn as a box with a pointed front but described as either ‘pyramidical’ (square-based pyramid pointing forwards) or conical. Powered by the engine, the blade would then slice through the wire, a significantly better concept for cutting wire than the somewhat feeble attempts considered by the official landships work as demonstrated the summer before-hand at the R.N.A.S. Depot at Barlby Road, which relied on the engine power pushing the vehicle through the wire.


Robert Macfie had failed in his attempts to get the Landships Committee to adopt his original design. He had, however, achieved considerable success in the one Landships Committee meeting he was at. He had convinced them of the benefits of a tracked vehicle, albeit basing his ideas on the Holt chassis at the time. This more adventurous design from 1916 though was not a success. It was significantly more advanced in both what was being envisaged and in technical terms than the first vehicle but, without a direct line of contact to the Committee, this design went nowhere. It is not clear if Macfie even tried to submit this idea to the relevant authorities or not, but it would not have mattered anyway. By the time he submitted his design in January 1916, the famous quasi-rhomboid-shaped British landship had already been settled upon.

Despite the lack of success with this design, Macfie would try once more to design what he felt was a tracked vehicle, but neither of these designs featured in the post-war enquiry into the invention of the tank. Macfie died in New York, USA in 1948.

Illustration of Macfie’s 1916 design, produced by Mr. R. Cargill, funded by our Patreon campaign


Crew est. 7 men (driver, steersman, commander, machine gunners x 4) + 20 soldiers
Armament Machine guns
Armor Bulletproof


Hills, A. (2019). Robert Macfie, Pioneers of Armour Vol.1. FWD Publishing, USA. (Available on Amazon)
British Patent GB124450 ‘Improvements in or relating to Motor-Vehicles’. Filed 3rd January 1916, Accepted 3rd April 1919
US Patent US1298366 ‘Motor Vehicle’. Filed 4th September 1917, Accepted 25th March 1919
Proceedings of the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors: tank 1918-1920

Robert Macfie (Pioneers of Armour)
Robert Macfie (Pioneers of Armour)

By Andrew Hills

The foundations and principles of modern armoured warfare did not appear out of a vacuum, and nor did the machines of WW1 and WW2. Their development was full of false starts, failed ideas, and missed opportunities. Robert Macfie was a pioneer in aviation at the turn of the century followed by work with the Landships Committee on tracked vehicles to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Although his tank designs never saw combat the work he started was carried on by other pioneers and helped to usher in a dawn of armoured and mechanised warfare.

Buy this book on Amazon!

WW1 British Prototypes

Macfie’s Landship 1914-15

British Empire (1914-15)
Design Only

Overlooked by most histories of the era of early armor, Robert Macfie was a visionary who first pressed the use of tracks to the Landships Committee at a time when ‘big-wheel’ machines were seen as the solution to the problems on the Western Front, namely barbed wire and machine guns. Almost unknown today, Robert Macfie designed what was to be one of the first tracked Landships.

Born on 11th November 1881 in San Francisco, the American-born son of a sugar baron, Macfie took an early interest in military matters outside of the family sugar business. Aged just 17 or 18 years old, he enrolled in the Royal Naval Engineering College, at Davenport, England studying naval design. After this, he went back to help with the family’s sugar business before settling in Chicago in 1902.

Around this time, he began an interest in aviation and was back in Britain by 1909 building his own aircraft and testing them at Fambridge in Essex. It was during his endeavours in the then brand-new field of aviation that he met Thomas Hetherington, a man later connected with landships in his own right.

His attempts at getting into the aviation business, however, were not a success. He was back on the family sugar plantations in the years before the outbreak of war and it was there that he became acquainted with the Holt agricultural tractor.

When war was declared in August 1914, Macfie returned to Britain once more. He immediately sought out his contacts from his aviation days advocating for the use of Holt-based tracked vehicles, and was referred on to Commodore Murray Sueter, in charge of the Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.), which at the time was operating armored cars, the primary mobile armored force for the Army.

Macfie had a design for a tracked vehicle sketched out and, even without official sanction or support, was seeking a manufacturer. As such, he approached Mr. Arthur Lang, a well-known manufacturer of propellers, who gave Macfie an introduction to Captain Swann, Director of the Air Department. Armed with the previous referral and a recommendation from Mr. Swann, Macfie got to see Commodore Sueter and presented to him a design for an armored vehicle based upon the Holt agricultural tractor, identified as a ‘caterpillar’.

Despite his engineering training and education, he was still an outsider in military terms. Wanting his designs and ideas to be taken seriously, Macfie made what could easily be his greatest professional error. He enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (R.N.V.R.) under a temporary commission as a Sub-Lieutenant in the belief that doing so would provide him with the contacts and credibility or ‘standing’ he might need. What it did though was to stymie his work and pigeon-hole him into armored car work and within a rigid military command hierarchy. On the plus side though, within this hierarchy, his immediate superior officer was his old friend Captain Thomas Hetherington, who he knew from his days with aircraft at Brooklands before the war.


The original sketch presented to Sueter in 1914 by Macfie was described as:

“triangular in side elevation, with a long base on the ground and a cocked-up nose to help it get a grip on banks or parapets. It even had a pair of trailing wheels aft, to keep it from swinging – just as our tanks had when they went into action two years later” and with a “comparatively long track and a comparatively short nose, and the nose is of such a nature as to give a climb…. There are three wheels, and the caterpillar goes round the third so that you get a flat base and a nose”

The vehicle was of a simple outline, being a rectangular box with a flat rear and sides and a wedge shape at the front. Hanging from the front was a large armored panel that descended at the same angle as the glacis until approximately two-thirds of the way down the height of the body. Below this, panel was a hinged flap allowing the tracks to be protected but flexible so as to not interfere with obstacle crossing.

At the back of the vehicle was a single fixed propellor intended to provide drive in the water and connected directly to a power take-off from the drive shaft.

Drive for the tracks was provided by a single-engine located centrally inside the hull, with the driving position directly behind. Steering for the driver was affected by means of a large steering wheel to his front but connected via a linkage to a pair of retractable trailing wheels at the back fitted with an Ackermann steering system.

The vehicle itself was fabricated from a framework to which panels of armor plate were fastened, presumably by means of bolts and rivets but creating a watertight body. This body was buoyant in water and the drawing identifies the metacentric height as very slightly below the centre-line of the vehicle’s body.

The most unusual element of the design though was the tracks. Despite being based on the Holt system, the track system designed by Macfie did not use wheels. Instead, it used a unique system whereby the tracklinks were a flattened ‘U’ shape with a square base. The base fitted onto a single smooth track guide running the full circumference of the track unit which was supported by spars, much in the same style of an aircraft. The track was driven though in a similar manner to the Holt system with a large 12-tooth drive sprocket at the back driven by a chain from the transmission located at the back of the vehicle.

No armament was specified for the Experimental Armoured Caterpillar, possibly because it was intended to be an experimental vehicle on which a future landship-of-war would be developed. As it stood though, with the driver at the back, it would have required a minimum of at least two men, a driver and a commander (who could see where to go, to operate the vehicle) and then more men for any weapons being carried.

Hauling Guns

Macfie had no success at persuading the authorities to accept his Holt-based caterpillar design, but on 2nd November 1914, whilst working as a Field Repair Officer at Wormwood Scrubs and then the nearby Clement Talbot Works, he saw a clipping from that day’s Daily Mail newspaper. The newspaper had an image showing a Holt Caterpillar in use headed ‘German Convoy entering Antwerp’ with the caterpillars hauling heavy naval guns. This article inspired a report from Macfie on 5th November 1914 to Sueter, once more pressing Macfie’s conviction over the use of tracked vehicles, albeit this time for hauling guns.

The plan was not armored though. Effectively, it was a train of 6 Holt tractors working together to haul a 85-ton (86.4 tonnes) load (the weight of a 12-inch naval gun and limber).

Further to the gun-hauling idea was that one of these Holt tractors could be gainfully employed in recovering the armored cars of the R.N.A.S., which had a habit of getting stuck when off-road or on what still passed as roads.

Sueter, however, had no interest in either option for the Holt tractor, but the die had been cast by Macfie and he had succeeded in convincing Hetherington of the validity of his ideas, although Hetherington too had his own ideas quite apart from those of Macfie.

Holt Redux to the Committee

Despite having discounted the idea of the Holt tractor for any use regarding an armored vehicle, a gun-hauler, or as a recovery vehicle, Sueter, in January 1915, asked for a report on Holt tractors. When he got the report back at the end of January 1915, Sueter must have been interested in the potential of the Holt track idea at least in principle, as he records in his own memoir that he saw Churchill several times bemoaning the problems of the tyres of his armored cars off-road and suggested that tracks might be more suitable.

It was then perhaps Macfie’s prior badgering about the merits of the Holt that proved most influential then, because when, in February 1915, a Landships Committee was being formed, Macfie was invited to attend at the behest of Hetherington. The 22nd February 1915 meeting was the first official meeting of the Landships Committee and it was to be the only time Macfie was in front of the committee.

The most significant person there other than Macfie with relevant experience to the problem of traction off-road and in mud was Colonel Rookes Crompton, a leading expert in wheeled traction. Crompton brought an idea for a giant wheeled machine and he would not be the last to suggest such a wheeled scheme, but Macfie was different. Macfie once more suggested the advantages of a tracked vehicle and was persuasive enough that Crompton acknowledged the advantages of tracks over wheels. Thus the die was cast, tracks were to be the primary solution to off-road traction for an armored vehicle and the man primarily responsible for this was Macfie.

The meeting was also a split between Hetherington and Macfie. Hetherington had his own wheeled battleship scheme he wanted to pursue and Macfie was wedded to tracks. Macfie then took his plans to Commander Boothby (R.N.A.S.).

Bootby was also won over by the idea of tracks and via Sueter arranged for Macfie to pursue a tracked vehicle as a test. Not a landship as originally planned, but the conversion of an old lorry into a tracked vehicle following a report from Macfie in April 1915.

April 1915

Macfie had no success with his traction schemes other than in persuading the Landships Committee of their virtue. He did have a task with the tracked truck but his mind was still on a tracked landship. To this end, on 13th April 1915, via Boothby, he made yet another submission, this time envisaging how the as yet non-existent landships could be used in combat suggesting:

“One form of attack I would suggest is as follows:
At dawn two columns of caterpillars would seize a zone of the enemy’s trenches – previously surveyed by Aeroplane – by getting astride them and killing everything in Zone A by enfilading fire. Immediately after this a horde of cavalry and horse artillery could pour through and seize the enemy’s base… I am aware that machines are proposed which will be armoured against rifle and Maxim fire which are to carry parties of soldiers to the trenches whereupon doors are to be opened and the men pour out. I would submit that this plan fails to deal effectively with the enemy’s artillery and that further only the front line of enemy’ can be dealt with in this way. Again caterpillar construction and operation like other branches of engineering is not as easy as it looks. Engineers without any experience of this work, no matter how distinguished in their own fields, are no more likely to succeed at it than a locomotive expert would be likely to succeed at hydroplane construction at the first attempt, or vice versa, without previous study or experience”

As well as this theory of attack, Macfie had also given serious consideration to the problems of steering saying:

“steering with wheels is easy, because a wheel touches the ground at one point, whereas a caterpillar presents a whole surface to the ground. Again, in a wheel the only rubbing surfaces are at the centre, well away from grit and dirt, which is also thrown away from the hub by centrifugal force”

Macfie was presenting his idea for a tracked and armored vehicle steered by wheels at the back and the truck conversion was as much a test of tracks as technology as they were to consider the issues of steering a tracked vehicle.

Original blueprint for Macfie’s Experimental Armoured Caterpillar, August 1915. Source: author


The work on the tracked truck took place at Messrs. Nesfield and Mackenzie along with the works director there, Mr. Albert Nesfield. The relationship between Nesfield and Macfie though was a thoroughly dysfunctional one and was the subject of acrimony during the post-war enquiry into the invention of the tank. The primary cause of the dysfunction seems to have a relatively straightforward clash of ideas. Macfie had to construct a tracked truck at the Nesfield and Mackenzie works and at the same time he was working on his landship idea. At the same time, Nesfield, with no previous involvement in matters, created his own ideas for a tracked vehicle borrowing extensively from Macfie.

When Macfie finished his model of his landship in June 1915, he took in to Sueter to show him. To his dismay, Macfie found that the very same model had already been brought to his offices on 30th June and shown to the Landships Committee (a fact disputed during the post-war commission). Two models were in fact made, a wooden one, and an aluminium one made on Macfie’s orders, and for security reasons, according to Macfie, these were later destroyed. Another model, powered by a pair of electric motors, was presented to the Royal Commission in 1919/1920. Macfie explained exactly why this model, even without trailing wheels was his:

“the model was never finished at Messrs. Nesfield and Mackenzie’s… but the state into which it had finally got when it disappeared was a body, open at the top, to represent the armoured body and two triangular tracks on either side made out of ordinary bicycle chain. Each track was driven by a small electric motor…I adopted that form of steering [one electric motor for each track] because it made a good demonstration form of steering. It would be very difficult to make a model which would be an effective demonstration model by using any other form of steering”

On or about 2nd or 3rd July, Macfie came to speak with senior officers at the Admiralty about his tracked vehicle ideas and asking for them to be taken over under the Defence of the Realm Act (D.O.R.A.). When he walked into the room to speak with them he found senior officers examining his model and sternly rebuked them saying:

“where on earth does this come from; this is mine, and I spent the last week looking for it”

Macfie was informed that the model brought there by some representative of Messrs. F.W. Berwick and Company, (colleagues of Mr. Nesfield) but Macfie’s anger was understandable. This unfinished model, still missing the trailing wheels, had been locked in a safe beforehand in Mr. Nesfield’s office and now had, after vanishing from there, mysteriously turned up at the Admiralty, delivered by colleagues of Nesfield. Macfie promptly seized the model back.

Macfie took this model back to the Clement-Talbot Works, the Headquarters for the Armoured Car Squadron and complained directly to Commander Boothby about what had happened. Boothby then sanctioned and approved for all work at Messrs. Nesfield and Mackenzie to cease immediately and Macfie set about finding a new site to finish his project. The working relationship between Macfie and Messrs. Nesfield and Mackenzie was to be dissolved. Boothby was thus in absolutely no doubt as to what was going on and acted decisively.

Macfie, with an armed guard to accompany him, then seized all of the remaining elements of the tracked work, and the as-yet unifinished tracked truck from Messrs. Nesfield and Mackenzie. For security reasons, all of the remaining drawings and models which were not handed in were burned, although in hindsight, this move, whilst efficient to maintain operational security, left Macfie with very little evidence in the post-war enquiry to refute the claims of Mr. Nesfield.


The important element of Macfie’s design and the one over which Mr. Nesfield was claiming invention was referred to as ‘angularization’. This term referred to the shape of the track at the front of the vehicle. On the Holt track system, the track was effectively flat with the leading section close to the ground, but Macfie’s design had a raised front end. This raised front end would permit the vehicle to climb a higher parapet or cross a trench which was wider than that which could be crossed by a low-fronted track.

This development was later summed up by Sueter during the enquiry into the invention of tanks saying:

“No one regretted it more than I did that Lieutenant Macfie failed me in producing an experimental landship, but the angularized track invention I am certain made the Tank the great success it became on active service. What an opportunity Lieutenant Macfie and Mr. Nesfield had. It was no fault of mine that they did not become as successful as my other Armoured Car Officer Lieutenant Wilson and Mr. Tritton of Messrs. Foster and Company were with their tank work”

Sueter refused to take any blame for the problems between Macfie and Nesfield, but Macfie was also undoubtedly an abrasive man in his own right and had rubbed Alfred Stern (the growing power within the Landships Committee) up the wrong way.

He would not see his unfinished tracked truck again, and in December 1915, his commission was ended. Macfie was to have nothing more to do with the official development of Landships or tracked vehicles of any kind during the war.

Macfie’s contested model which was demonstrated to the Royal Commission and now preserved at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. Inside are two small electric motors but the drive arrangement of the sprocket and tracks (here modelled using bicycle chain) is readily obvious. The hole in the side was to model a possible machine gun position. Source: author


Despite the failure of Macfie to have the Landships Committee adopt his original design, he did have one significant success, namely convincing the authorities to pursue tracked vehicles instead of wheeled schemes for a landship albeit basing his ideas on the Holt chassis at the time. His design was not a success and the plans he burned for security purposes could have provided him with the evidence he needed to properly submit his claim in 1919 to the subsequent Royal Commission. As it was, he was awarded just a fraction of the money he may have been properly entitled to which Nesfield had also laid claim.

Despite being denied the chance to finish his tracked truck or to see his landship come to fruition, Macfie was not finished with tracked vehicles. In fact, he would go on to design more tracked vehicles, but sadly for him, these too were failures. Macfie returned to America after the war and died in New York on 9th February 1948.

Illustrtion of Macfie’s 1915 design, produced by Mr. R.Cargill


Crew 2 (driver and commander) and weapons crew as required
Armament At least 2 Machine guns
Armor Bulletproof


Hills, A. (2019). Robert Macfie, Pioneers of Armour Vol.1. FWD Publishing, USA (Available on Amazon)
Proceedings of the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors: tank 1918-1920
Service Record Royal Naval Air Service 1914-1916: Robert Macfie

Robert Macfie (Pioneers of Armour)
Robert Macfie (Pioneers of Armour)

By Andrew Hills

The foundations and principles of modern armoured warfare did not appear out of a vacuum, and nor did the machines of WW1 and WW2. Their development was full of false starts, failed ideas, and missed opportunities. Robert Macfie was a pioneer in aviation at the turn of the century followed by work with the Landships Committee on tracked vehicles to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Although his tank designs never saw combat the work he started was carried on by other pioneers and helped to usher in a dawn of armoured and mechanised warfare.

Buy this book on Amazon!

WW1 British Prototypes WW1 Canadian Armor

Ivel Motor Ambulance ‘Ivel First-Aid Motor’

CanadaGreat Britain/Canada (1904) Armoured Ambulance – 1 Built

The Boer Wars had taught the British Army many lessons, often coming at a high price. One of those lessons was that they needed a better and more efficient means of hauling artillery off-road than using animals, such as teams of oxen. A report for the army in 1902 recommended a general need for mechanised transportation in the army, although steam engines were still the preferred method. The preference for steam would end with trials in October 1903, when the diesel-engined Hornsby tractor built by Richard Hornsby and Sons of Grantham, Lincolnshire, won the £1,000 first prize. The Hornsby tractor, although very large, marked the start of the British Army involvement with combustion engines and, as early as 1904, the army was even beginning to look at tracked machines. All this was still being looked at for gun-haulage, and there was another internal combustion-engined machine at the time which received less attention; the Ivel light tractor.

US Patent US724513 filed 13th September 1902. Source: USPTO

The First Tractor

Designed by the innovative tractor pioneer Mr. Daniel Albone in 1902, the Ivel agricultural tractor was a small affair. It was the first combustion-engined light agricultural tractor built in Great Britain and brought mechanization to farming within the reach of more farmers than the old steam-powered machines could. In 1902, mechanization was still in its early days, but the military was open to ideas. The small size of the lightweight (just over a ton) Ivel motor tractor made it an attractive proposition for a mobile army needing to haul supplies and light field guns.

The 1902 three-wheeled Ivel agricultural tractor. Britain’s first internal combustion-engined light agricultural tractor. Source: Science Museum UK
Built by Ivel Agricultural Motors Limited, located in Biggleswade, London, this compact vehicle used a triangular arrangement of three wheels. It sat on two large steel wheels, 4 feet (1.2 m) in diameter, with steel spokes at the back providing traction and a smaller steel wheel at the front with a solid circumferential rubber tire which was narrower than the wheel. This rubber tire would help to dig into soft ground to prevent slipping from side to side and extra ‘purchase’ in the dirt for steering. On the road, this solid tire held the steel wheel off the hard road surface and, again, assisted in steering. For use on roads or for additional traction in soft soils, large rubber treads could be fixed around the outside of the steel-driving wheels.

Large rubber treads fitted to the steel wheel. Source:
The single-seat was located high off the ground at the back on the right-hand side, next to the water-filled cooling box for the engine on the left. The steering wheel was simple and arranged on a vertical steering column with the wheel horizontal, applying steering power to the front wheel by two push/pull rods, but no power steering was provided. A belt-drive wheel was fitted to the left-hand side, which would be used for driving a variety of agricultural equipment.

Ivel tractor fitted with steel body in use pulling a plough 1903.
The engine was a small 2 cylinder horizontally opposed petrol engine located centrally on the frame of the tractor. From the early production of this vehicle in 1902, the car engines, mostly from the firm of Payne and Baynes, had steadily increased from just 8 hp to 24 hp by 1913. At the time of trials in 1904, the engine was an 18 hp Payne and Baynes petrol engine, although it was expected that an oil (diesel) engine could be substituted for any military contract production.
This power was supplied to the drive wheels by means of a simple 2-speed gearbox with a single forward and single reverse gear, ideally suited to a small machine designed specifically to draw ploughs, harrows, and other farming implements. All told, this vehicle weighed just 28 hundredweight (1.42 tonnes) maximum, making it not just one of the smallest tractors, but also the first combustion-engined tractor in Great Britain.


With the design of the light tractor behind him and export orders to the Empire and beyond for his design, Mr. Albone was doing well and, upon the suggestion of Major Palliser of the Canadian Militia, he worked out a way of fitting armor to his tractor. Major Pallister designed the armor, it was fabricated by Messrs, Cammel, Laird and Co., and Mr. Albone arranged and organized the construction. The goal was not a ‘fighting vehicle’ per se, but a means to reach and treat injured soldiers on the battlefield. There do not seem to have been any ideas for evacuating or moving wounded soldiers back to safety, and there was little space for a stretcher, but the idea of an armored ambulance was a novelty to the military.
Unlike many novel ideas which went no further than an outline on paper or even a blueprint, this design was built. Albone had his tractor clad in ¼ inch (6.35 mm) thick Cammell’s bulletproof armor plate to protect the crew seeing to injured men. The armoring consisted of covering the open-spoked wheels with a circular plate each and then the body. The armor took the form of a wedge shape coming to a sharp angle at the front. The very front wedge of the plating had two upside-down ‘V’ shaped notches cut into it to allow for the movement of the rubber tire on the front wheel. A large sloping bonnet covered the engine area, and two rectangular hatches provided access for maintenance. The entire construction of plating was bolted together onto a frame.
The cab area was roughly square, with a plate at the front sloping slightly backward. The driver, seated in the rear right, had a single long horizontal vision slot in the front. No side vision slots appear to have been provided, which would have made any kind of awareness as to the ground conditions very hard for the driver to determine. At the rear of the cab were the two large rectangular doors. Each one was hinged, forming two parts and each had a smaller rectangular piece which folded down forming a full shield from the height of the vehicle down to ground level. As both doors could be opened at once, this formed a large shield 7 feet (2.13m) high by 9 feet (2.74m) wide, impenetrable to bullets, behind which medical crew could attend to the wounded men and where they could be sheltered safe from enemy fire. When fitted with armor plating, the weight of the vehicle increased from 28 hundredweight (1.42 tonnes) to just over 30 hundredweight (1.52 tonnes).
Although it only had a seat for the driver who also functioned as an engineer, a second crew member could be carried, although he would have to squeeze in the back by the water tank. There was also little space for stores or medical equipment to be carried, but this marked a significant change in military thinking.

Artist’s impression of the Ivel armored tractor. Source: Wood, Healey, and Hobson

Illustration of the Ivel Motor Ambulance or ‘Ivel First-Aid Motor’ with the rear panels in the open position, produced by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon Campaign

Bisley May 1904

There were no markings on the vehicle for its first test at Bisley (Surrey, England, UK) – house of the National Shooting Center – on 17th May 1904. Here, Mr. Albone showed not one, but two of his vehicles. Both were his light tractor designs, but only one was armored. Ivel was looking for a military contract and now could show, with this armored version, the versatility of this design. The first vehicle, fitted with armor plate, was demonstrated as an ambulance but was also still capable of being used as a tractor. The second vehicle, unarmored, was somewhat incongruously demonstrated by being used to power an ice-making machine, as well as the slightly more practical electric light generator and water purifying equipment. The armored tractor also showed it could haul wagons loaded with medical supplies or a wagon for the wounded holding up to 30 men. It could haul these off-road and also deal with the undulations in the terrain. The audience included military figures and a representative from the US Embassy in London.

The ‘Ivel First-Aid Armoured Motor’ during trials at Bisley 17th May 1904. Source: Motor-Car Journal and Scientific American respectively
The vehicle was driven over the testing ground, whereupon to “a severe fusillade was then poured upon the vehicle from rifles at ranges varying from 20 to 100 yards, but without penetrating the armor”. With no damage from rifle fire, the armor had proven itself, and the machine did too, achieving between 3 and 6 miles per hour.
Several small problems were noted, but overall it had been a successful trial. The vehicle had shown its potential as an ambulance and, with that belt-drive wheel on the side, the capability of supporting a field hospital with light, water, and of course, ice. A further demonstration was to take place.

Bisley November 1904

The second official showing of the Ivel Motor Ambulance took place at Bisley Barracks in mid-November 1904, under the gaze of Sir W. Taylor from the Army Medical Service. Here, once more, the vehicle was seen to move easily off-road and was tested against rifle fire, where once more the shielding proved to be impenetrable. The only substantial change to the machine since Bisley in May was that, in the second test, it had large red crosses in a white circle painted on it, one on the front plate next to the driver’s vision slit, and one more on each of the outer sections of the rear doors.

Ivel Motor Ambulance, Millbank trials November 1904. Source: Scientific American and Automotor Journal
Despite these tests and the obvious practical benefits of the design, no orders for it were made. It was 1905 and the Boer War was over, the First World War had not yet begun, and with no major wars apparent, there was little urgency at the War Office. This intransigence was challenged in March 1905 in the House of Commons by Colonel McCalmont, Conservative Member of Parliament for Antrim East, who wanted to know whether the War Office would cover the costs of trials of the ambulance. All he had requested was a formal field trial of the machine paid for by the War Office, hardly an extravagance considering that the vehicle had already been built at the expense of the Ivel company. Nonetheless, Mr. Arnold-Foster (Secretary of State for War) responded that the ambulance had been under consideration but was rejected as it was unsuited to service requirements. Further trials, therefore, were not contemplated.
The design was patented in 1904 with a filing the previous year by Edward Palliser, of Hurlingham, London. In that filing, Palliser explained the potential uses as including as a tractor for hauling stores like ammunition. It does not seem that this contemplated use was every considered by the Army who were shown it making better use of those folding rear shields as protection for wounded men. Palliser made one other comment regarding the vehicle in use as an ambulance though, he explained that these rear doors could be removed to use as a shield independent of the vehicle specifically for the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.).

The arrangement of armor plate on the tractor (left) and the view from the front with the shields folded out (right). Source: British Patent GB10082 of 1903

Ivel Motor Ambulance with the back doors open being viewed by soldiers. Source: Fletcher


Despite the failure of the Army to take up the Ivel Motor Ambulance, the firm still found international export success. Mr. Daniel Albone though, died in 1906, aged just 46. Without the insight and imagination of this man, the firm entered a period of decline and was wound up in 1915, just after the start of WW1, when, perhaps ironically, his armored ambulance could have provided some useful service. The fate of the Ivel ambulance is unclear. Following the trails in 1904 and the official abandonment of any interest by 1905, it was likely returned to a normal tractor and sold off. Today, only seven Ivel tractors are known to remain in existence worldwide, and the ambulance is not one of them. The Royal Army Medical Corps would have to wait many more years for an armored vehicle to evacuate the wounded as the opportunity for probably the first combustion-engined armored-ambulance was missed.


Dimensions 2.13 m high
Weight 1.42 tonnes unarmored, 1.52 tonnes armored
Crew 1 (driver/commander) + 1 medic
Propulsion 2 cylinder 18hp Payne and Baynes petrol engine. (Diesel considered)
Speed (road) 3 – 6 mph (4.8 – 9.7 km/h)
Armor ¼” (6.35mm) Cammell’s bulletproof plate
Total production 1


Army and Navy Journal. (4th March 1905). Untitled article.
The Automobile. (17th December 1904). An Army Motor Ambulance.
The Automobile. (21st January 1905). Motor Ambulance.
The Automotor Journal. (19th November 1904). Ploughing, Ancient and Modern.
The Automotor Journal. (3rd December 1904). An Ambulance Motor.
British Patent application GB3920 filed 15th February 1902
British Patent GB10082 by Edward Palliser. Improvements in Bullet-proof Shields for use on Motor Vehicles, filed 4th May 1903, granted 28th April 1904
Cobette, W. (1905). The Parliamentary Debates.
DK. (2015). Tractor: The Definitive Visual History. DK.
The Engineer. (2nd December 1904). An Armoured Motor Tractor.
Engineering. (February 19th 1904). The Motor Car Show.
Fletcher, D. (1987). War Cars. HMSO
Hansard. (20th March 1905). The Ivel Motor Ambulance. HC Debates, Volume 143. C440.
The Motor. (29th November 1904). A New Motor Ambulance.
Motor Car Journal. (21st May 1904). Comments.
Motor Car Journal. (28th May 1904). Here and There.
Pharmaceutical Journal. (March 25th 1905). Notes in Parliament.
Scientific American. (18th February 1905). An Ambulance Automobile.
Scientific American. (23rd March 1907). Latest Designs of the Motor in Warfare.
US Patent US724531, filed 12th September 1902, accepted 7th April 1903
Williams, M. (2016). Farm Tractors, A Complete Illustrated History. Fox Chapel.
Williams, M. (1974). Farm Tractors in Color. Macmillan.
Wood, J., Hiley, B., Hobson, W. (1979). Farm Tractors in Colour. Blandford Press.

Tanks Encyclopedia Magazine, #2

Tanks Encyclopedia Magazine, #2

The second issue of the Tank Encyclopedia magazine covers the fascinating history of armored fighting vehicles from their beginnings before the First World War up to this day! This issue covers vehicles such as the awe-inspiring rocket-firing German Sturmtiger, the Soviet SMK Heavy Tank, the construction of a replica Italian Fiat 2000 heavy tank and many more. It also contains a modeling section and a feature article from our friends at Plane Encyclopedia cover the Arado Ar 233 amphibious transport plane! All the articles are well researched by our excellent team of writers and are accompanied by beautiful illustrations and period photos. If you love tanks, this is the magazine for you!
Buy this magazine on Payhip!

WW1 British Prototypes WW1 US Prototypes

Kupchak War Automobile

UK 1914 United Kingdom/Canada/USA (1917)
Armored tractor – 1 Prototype

In April 1917, World War I was in full swing with devastating losses on the Western Front and the United States had just declared war on Germany. Tanks had started to be used in combat and generated an enormous amount of interest in the newspapers, magazines, and newsreels of the day. The result was a response from the inventive minded members of the public to get creative with many of their own designs. One of these designs came from the hand of Stephen Kupchak, a British citizen living in Rosevear, Alberta, Canada, who submitted his design for a patent on the 17th April 1917 in the USA.
Kupchak did not call his tracked machine a tank though, instead, he called it a ‘War-Automobile’. Although it was never built, it remains an interesting development at a time of great inventiveness and learning in the rights and wrongs of tank design.

Profile and top-down cut-away schematic. Photo: Patent US1253605


The basic shape of the machine is crude, a giant box on tracks. Kupchak has adopted a rounded front with vertical faces which extended along the sides and a vertical rear. The structure was made of “suitable armor plate” of an unspecific thickness. Inside the curved front section, was mounted a “rapid fire gun mounting a silencer”, although a caliber was not specified.
Access to the machine would be provided by two large rectangular doors in the sides located in the front half of the vehicle. On the roof of the machine was a “conning tower” fitted with a variety of slots for the commander to see out of. It is not mentioned if it rotatable and, as no firing ports are obvious in the drawings, it would appear to have been simply for observation.

Holt suspension seen from the side is quite noticeably very different to the Kupchak design with multiple small wheels and with track tensioning taking place at the end idler.

Illustration of the Kupchak War Automobile. Produced by Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker, funded by our Patreon Campaign.


Online it has been said that the chassis on which the ‘tank’ is based is that of the Holt tractor, but this is not described in this way in the 1917 US patent filing. The patent spends a lot of time describing the track mechanisms stating the added advantage that it could be tensioned from inside the machine without getting out. Certainly, in 1917, this was something which could not be done on the existing British tank models and had the advantage that the crew would not be exposed to fire just to tension the track.

Details of the Kupchak track tensioning system. Photo: Patent US1253605
The track tensioning system of the Kupchak design was crude but ingenious, and completely different from that of the Holt chassis, showing that whatever relationship this design had to the Holt was superficial at best. Unlike a British tank of the period, which used a large adjusting nut from outside to move the entire idler further out, Kupchak instead opted for an unusual winding system. The three extremely small wheels, which also provided the suspension for the machine, were mounted on a vertical rod which could move up and down with undulations in the ground and return to position via a spring. The initial position, however, was modified by means of a winding handle operated from inside the machine. This had the effect of jacking the machine further up on the wheel meaning the track-run was longer and thus tensioning the track in the process. Quite how practical this system would actually have been, or whether, indeed, it could even work, is not clear, as there is no additional gearing to provide the mechanical advantage which might be needed to elevate a heavy vehicle in such a way.

The front-mounted track tensioner on the British Mk.I male tank on display at Bovington. Photo: Mark Nash


The Kupchak design is hard to judge. Clearly, it was drawn at a time when tank technology was in its infancy and has significant problems, but it also offers an interesting insight into the technology available at the time. The problems of tightening tracks and providing suspension for a track-laying vehicle were clearly not completely understood, yet the solutions are both inventive and unusual. Tim Rigsby, in ‘WW1 Landship Design’, states that Kupchak was one of the designers (with responsibility for the hull) for a rejected 200 ton ‘Trench Destroyer’ idea and that he submitted the design of his vehicle to the British War Office in 1918. According to Rigsby, the War Office did not reject it, but simply asked for a full-size machine for demonstration purposes to be built, something that Kupchak, with limited resources, could not do. Thus, according to Rigsby, the project died but none of that account can be verified and is still being investigated.


US Patent US1253605 filed 17th April 1917, granted 15th January 1918
WW1 Landship design, Tim Rigsby

WW1 British Prototypes

Lincoln No. 1 Machine

UK United Kingdom (1915)
Prototype – 1 built

The First World War was supposed to end quickly. Most of the high-ranking officials of the participating countries expected and planned for a short war, in which they would quickly crush their enemies and win glory and territories for their nations. However, after the German defeat at the First Battle of the Marne (6-12th September 1914), the Germans started digging in behind the River Aisne. The war was just one month old.
By March 1915, the trench lines on the Western Front spanned from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. Bogged down in soft mud caused by heavy artillery bombing and rain, ensnared in barbed wire, entangled in numerous successive defensive lines, and decimated by machine-gun fire, offensives on the Western Front yielded little results and appalling casualties. The British and the French started looking for a solution to this ‘deadly equation’. The end result on the British end would be the first tank deployment in the world, preceded by the first tank prototype ever built, the ‘Lincoln No.1 Machine’.

The Lincoln No.1 Machine on trials. The tarpaulins concealing the vehicle have the name of the firm William Foster and Co. of Lincoln on them. Photo: SOURCE

A Historiographical Note

In October 1919, a Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors investigated about a dozen claims with regards to the invention of the tank. The claimants included personalities such as Winston Churchill, R.E.B.Crompton, William Tritton, Eustace d’Eyncourt and other important persons in the development of the tank. A large prize was awarded to those that the Commission deemed to be the ‘inventors’, although such a complicated machine could not be ‘invented’ by only two men and was a concentrated effort. However, the works of this Commission have driven a large number of divergent claims with regards to the development of the tank, and thus of the Lincoln No.1 Machine as well.
Furthermore, the Lincoln No.1 Machine (even under its more famous Little Willie name), while eliciting a large deal of interest, especially due to the centennial of the First World War, has only been treated superficially in the specialised literature, being glossed over in favor of the iconic rhomboid tanks.

A Flurry of Ideas

The tank, as it crashed through the German lines in 1916, did not appear out of a vacuum. Armored cars had been built and showcased around Europe for more than a decade, even though in small numbers and often facing vitriolic opposition. However, the armored car was incapable of traversing no man’s land. Various tank-like vehicles were also proposed around the continent and were just as rigorously ignored.
A myriad of solutions were soon envisaged, including portable bridges, pedrails, steam rollers and huge wheels. The tracked-vehicle did not immediately emerge as the redeeming solution. In fact, on 17th February 1915, a committee from the War Office (not to be confused with the later Landship Committee of the Admiralty) attended a demonstration of a Holt Tractor at Shoeburyness, some 40 miles west of London. However, the members of the committee were highly critical of the vehicle, especially regarding the weight and costs of an armored vehicle based on the Holt tractor. And thus the army turned its back on the tank idea.

The Navy Steps In

One of the major users of armored cars on the Western Front was, quite surprisingly, the Royal Navy Air Service, or RNAS. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill, had already joined the landship discussion in January 1915, with a letter to the Prime Minister speaking about armored steam tractors that would crush barbed wire, cross trenches, and deliver infantry to the enemy lines. While other fanciful ideas and ludicrous designs were discussed, on the 22nd February 1915, the Admiralty’s Landship Committee met for the first time under the chairmanship of Eustace d’Eyncourt, deciding to further look into two options, tracked vehicles or vehicles with large wheels.
With no reliable tracks available in Great Britain at the time, an officer was sent to the USA to try and locate some. The mission resulted in the delivery of the Killen-Strait tractor followed by two Creeping Grip tractors and an elongated set of tracks from the Bullock company in Chicago. The Bullock tracks arrived in August 1915.

An excellent shot of the two of the two Bullock Creeping Grip tractors that were bought on behalf of the Landship Committee and linked together. This was a development parallel to what would become the Lincoln No.1 Machine. However, this photograph of the original suspension also demonstrates the sagging that the elongated version on the Lincoln No.1 Machine suffered from. Because the tank’s tracks were much longer, they were even more likely to not connect correctly on the far end of the trench and be thrown off. Photo: IWM
In June 1915, the Army finally expressed its interest in getting back into the project, but the development would remain in Admiralty hands for a while longer. On 22nd (other sources state 24th) of July, the Lincoln-based William Foster & Company was finally contracted to build a prototype landship based on the longer version of the Bullock tracks. This choice came due to their previous experience with building tracked vehicles and their involvement with the military, having developed the humongous Daimler Foster artillery tractors and also having been involved in developing their own trench-crossing vehicle.
The vehicle at this stage is also described as based on one half of the articulated Crompton machine, as in an order from the Landship Committee from the 30th of July. This did not mean it actually was one half of the Crompton machine, but just that it used the same tracks.
However, from this short incubation period in the Navy’s berth, a number of components of the tank have received ship-like designations that are in use to this day. Tanks have hulls (from the watertight shell of a ship), hatches for the crew members, sometimes have weapon ports and sponsons (a part of a ship that projects beyond the side of the hull), one or more turrets (an entirely enclosed part of a ship that could rotate with the armament mounted in it), the hull machine-gun is often called a bow MG (the bow is the front of a ship) and the part above the engine is the engine deck (the floors on a ship).

The Lincoln No. 1 Machine

The paternity of the design that emerged is contested, with both R.E.B.Crompton and William Tritton claiming it. The former had led the design efforts of the Landship Committee before his contract ending prior to the end of the construction of the prototype and he was replaced with Tritton. What is known is that Tritton at least knew of a set of detailed drawings done by Crompton and an assistant, Mr. Rigby. Tritton contests having received a full set of detailed drawings, with other sources claiming he did, in fact, receive them. Regardless, construction finally began on 11th August. On the 9th (or 8th) of September, just four weeks later, it was already being driven around the yard at the Foster Company’s testing grounds.

The Lincoln No.1 Machine during trials. Notice the turret visible under the canvas and what looks like a gun holding up the cover. The vehicle was going over a small hill. The steering wheels are visible at the rear, as is the ‘nose’ that protrudes in front of the tracks. Note that the image was improperly scanned. Source: IWM Q 14543

The Name

The vehicle presented in this article, featuring the Bullock tracks, the simple version of the rear wheels and the large turret, was known as either the ‘Lincoln No.1 Machine’, after the locality it was built in, or the ‘Tritton’, after its head designer, at the time of its construction and testing. Some sources also state that William Tritton called both this design and Mother as ‘Juggernaut’.
The ‘Little Willie’ nickname seems to have only appeared after the Tritton tracks were fitted, sometime in January 1916, accompanying the ‘Big Willie’, better known as ‘Mother’ or ‘His Majesty’s Land Ship Centipede’. There is no proof that the vehicle ever officially ceased being called the ‘Lincoln No.1 Machine’, even after its upgrade.
It is thus the author’s choice to use the designations to differentiate between the ‘Lincoln No.1 Machine’ fitted with the Bullock tracks and the ‘Little Willie’ fitted with the Tritton tracks.
A note on the ‘tank’ designation should also be made. The persons involved in the project decided to adopt a cover name for the new vehicle being prepared, ‘landship’ being deemed as too conspicuous. ‘Water Carrier’ was first proposed, but the shorter version of ‘tank’ eventually won out and has remained in worldwide use. It is, however, unclear when the ‘tank’ designation first appeared and if it was applied to the Lincoln No.1 Machine. J.F.C. Fuller, in his book ‘Tanks in the Great War 1914-1918’ claims that it was first used on 24th December 1915 for a proposed ‘Tank Supply Committee’ that would take over armored development in the United Kingdom. This Committee was indeed formed in September 1916 upon the dissolution of the Landships Committee.
Another explanation given for the tank name is that the ‘chassis’ and the ‘body’ of the vehicle were separated, with the ‘chassis’, actually the Creeping Grip track system, being described as a training vehicle for the Royal Marine Artillery and the hull of the tank as a water carrier for Mesopotamia. This could also explain the photograph of the Lincoln No.1 Machine hull in the Foster factory, showing an almost complete vehicle, but with no running gear and no holes cut into the hull.


The large, boxy vehicle was of riveted construction using an iron-angle frame, being made out of boiler plate and not bullet-proof armor. This was, in the end, meant to be a test prototype and not to see combat. An angular nose protruded from the front, inside which the steering controls were located. Just above the glacis of this ‘nose’ were two hatches, hinged on the upper part, which allowed the driver and co-driver to see forwards. Both these hatches also featured a small horizontal slit with a shutter that should have allowed some limited visibility under fire. A similar design would be kept for most British tanks used in World War One. These could be held open using a strut. It is unclear if the circular gun slot that later appeared between the two hatches on Little Willie was present on the Lincoln No.1 Machine as well or if it was a later modification.
Two large, almost full-length sponsons were present on the sides, emerging from just over the tracks and reaching up to the top of the vehicle. Each of them had three weapon ports with a rotating shutter when not in use. One large headlight could be mounted on either side. The rear of the tank hosted the coupling that held the rear pair of wheels. This coupling allowed the wheels to be turned from the inside through a small hole at the rear of the tank. The rear assembly was fixed to mounting points on each side at the rear and connected to a large spring in the lower part of the rear. A door was also present on the left side of the tank, with a pistol port at its top. This seems to have been the only way of accessing the tank. A radiator fill port was present on the upper right side.

A photo showing the rear of the Lincoln No.1 Machine. The rear wheels and their mechanism are visible, as is the cable used to control them. The large door on the left is open, probably in order to aid ventilation inside. The small tubular piece of metal protruding out of the oval port hole in the center of the right-hand door at the back of the vehicle is the radiator filling tube. The constant use of a large canvas sheet over the vehicle was for security purposes, meant to disguise the machine. Photo: SOURCE
The rear wheels were meant to help the tank in steering and could be turned left and right, like on a regular car. They were based on the Ackerman steering geometry used in most wheeled vehicles. Because they were at the rear, when the wheels were turned to the left they would then turn the tank to the right, similar to how a car handles when driven in reverse. This was not the main means of steering, but was meant to augment the track steering and allow for more efficient shallow turns. The usual brake differential, which was the main mode of steering, led to the loss of a good deal of the tank’s power. Also, when crossing a trench, the wheels would offer extra support to the tank, allowing it to pass over trenches and not slide backward at the last moment.
The rear wheels on the Lincoln No.1 Machine were the same as the front wheels on the Foster-Daimler tractor, with a prominent circumferential central rib on the wheels. This feature would be kept for the Mark I tanks, but was removed afterward. The wheels where 1.37 m (4 ½ ft) in diameter. A large coil spring was also present, one end connected to the rear of the hull and the other to the rear wheel frame. This spring pulled the wheels downward, ensuring good contact with the terrain. The Lincoln No.1 Machine did not have the hydraulic system that could raise the rear wheels when needed.

The rear wheels on the Lincoln No.1 Machine. The attachment points and the large spring that held them in place are visible. Photo: SOURCE
The top of the tank had five structural support ribs running transversely, with another reinforcement running longitudinally on the centre. There was a radiator air intake at the rear right. A fan intake was placed further forward on the right, but behind the turret. Two more holes were present next to the fan. One of them was probably the fuel intake and the other the exhaust, although that is just speculation.
The Lincoln No.1 Machine also featured a large circular turret placed near the middle of the vehicle. There is some discussion around the placement of the turret, focusing on whether it was centered or offset to one side. Investigations on Little Willie, which survives in the Bovington Tank Museum, show that the circular plate that was used to cover the turret opening is off-center. However, it is unclear if this is because the turret opening itself is off-center or if only the plate was mounted to one side.
David Fletcher, in ‘The British Tank: 1915-1919’, states that the turret did not have any rotation mechanism installed for the prototype. It was not just a dummy weight though, as a photo taken during construction of the vehicle shows it being made of riveted steel, same as the rest of the tank. Contrary to various online opinions that state that the turret was meant to be fixed in place, it was almost assuredly designed to rotate on the final design. Turrets were not a new concept at the time, having already been used extensively on armored cars and on ships. Furthermore, the circular shape was too difficult to create and had no advantages over a rectangular shape if it was meant to be a fixed casemate.
Unfortunately, little else is known about the turret except for the fact it had at least one more weapon port. There is also a chalk lining on the front part, possibly showing where the cut-out for the gun would be made. There is a single photo showing the turret during the construction of the Lincoln No.1 Machine. The turret is well hidden by a textile cover in all the other photos of the vehicle. This was meant to obscure the role of the vehicle to any uninvited enquirers.

The only photo showing the Lincoln No.1 Machine’s turret. This was taken during construction at William Foster and Co. Note that the front hatches for the driver and co-driver have not been cut in yet. Neither have the side gun ports. The ‘tube’ sticking out of the lower side of the hull next to the ladder is the central pivoting axle, on which the track frames where mounted and also supported one drive chain sprocket. It is unclear what the thing attached to the side of the hull is, although it is possible it was used for cutting the weapon ports. Photo: SOURCE
The running gear was not directly connected to the hull of the vehicle. All the wheels that held the track were mounted on a frame that was then connected to a central pivoting axle on each side. Two other brackets on each side, one at the front and one at the rear, controlled the pitch of the body.


The Lincoln No.1 Machine was meant to sport impressive weaponry for the time. The turret was intended to mount a Quick Firing (QF) 2-pounder (40mm) Mark II gun. This watercooled Vickers-Maxim type autocannon was already in use in the Royal Navy as a ship-borne anti-aircraft gun. This weapon had a relatively high-rate of fire, being belt-fed, and a high muzzle velocity (585 m/s). However, the rather small shell had no explosive power, its main ammunition being solid shells, and would have struggled against enemy emplacements and machine-gun nests. This would lead to its abandonment by the nascent tank arm in favor of the 6-pounder.
Another machine-gun was meant to be mounted in the weapon port to the left of the gun. This was not coaxial and could be independently aimed.

A Quick-Firing 2-pounder (40mm) gun used as an Anti-Aircraft Gun on a train car in the Middle East, in Mesopotamia, in 1918. Photo: Q 24291, Imperial War Museum archives
Besides this, up to six Madsen light machine-guns were meant to be used. The hull of the Lincoln No.1 Machine had three pistol ports on each side and another one at the rear, from which the machine-guns were probably meant to be fired. They would be mounted on trunions and aimed through special sights using a short pistol grip. The barrel would have had a special cover. The machine-guns were magazine fed, with the magazine on the top part of the weapon. It can be speculated that the machine-guns could be dismounted for use outside the tank if needed.
The Madsens had been ordered from Denmark in 1914 for land and air use, but they were never shipped to Great Britain because the route was well covered by the German High Seas fleet and submarines. The Madsens were subsequently abandoned by the time the Tank Mark I rolled out at Flers-Courcelette, replaced by the locally-built Hotchkiss and Vickers machine-guns.

The tank version of the Madsen light machine-gun. Photo: The Madsen Machine Rifle. Main Characteristics, Organization and Tactical Use
Another source, ‘Lincoln No.1 Machine, Little Willie’ by M.J.Verrall, states that the machine-guns would be Lewis or Hotchkiss ones. The same source also states a Maxim machine-gun would have been fitted in the circular port at the front of the tank.
Some sources also state that some rifles would be carried, probably for use by the crew if they dismounted. Ammunition capacity and stowage are unknown. It is almost certain that the Lincoln No.1 Machine never got to the point where these were even considered.


The engine used in the Lincoln No.1 Machine was the same 105 hp Daimler-Foster already in use on Foster’s gigantic artillery tractors. This was a six-cylinder sleeve-valve petrol engine. The sleeve-valve system was an alternative to the currently usual poppet valve. These devices are used to control the flow of fuel into the piston.
At its invention, the sleeve-valve engine was significantly quieter and had markedly improved reliability, being a favorite for luxury machines. This came at the cost of excessive lubricating oil use. In the end, availability, Foster’s experience with the engine and the fact it was already in production and could be put into new tanks quickly led to its use in the Lincoln No.1 Machine.

A 1913 article from The Commercial Motor magazine showing a photo of the 105 hp Daimler engine that was later used in the Lincoln No.1 Machine. Photo: Commercial Motor April 1913
The engine was placed towards the rear of the tank, partially underneath the turret, which would have made the latter’s use more complicated. This peculiar arrangement was probably chosen in order to give a better weight distribution and allow better crew access to the engine.
Beside the engine, a gearbox (two forward speeds, one reverse), a worm differential, steering controls, and a radiator were also present. The radiator was placed at the rear-right of the vehicle and the differential was probably placed in the middle part of the vehicle. The steering controls were at the front, close to the two driver positions. One driver controlled the acceleration, gearbox and rear wheels, while the other one controlled the brakes for each track. Two fuel tanks were mounted in the rear upper sides of the hull.
The power transfer arrangement from the differential to the drive sprocket was ludicrously complicated. The drive shafts (one on each side) had a sprocket connected through a chain to another sprocket fitted to the central pivoting axle. This was connected to a second sprocket, also fitted to the central pivoting axle, which was connected by a second chain to a lantern pinion that drove the drive sprocket at the rear of the tank. A similarly complicated system was maintained on the subsequent Tank Mark I-IV. This had the advantage that the whole power transfer arrangement was more resistant to shocks, since the chains would not transmit exterior shocks to the gearbox and differential.

Illustration showing a cutaway of the complicated power transfer arrangement on the Tank Mark IV. Photo: Source unknown, taken from Pinterest

The slightly less complicated power transfer arrangement on the Tank Mark V, showing the two chain-connected sprockets, the second of which meshes with the drive sprocket. Photo: The Tank Corps, by Major Clough Williams-Ellis, M. C., and A. Williams-Ellis

A Daimler Foster artillery tractor. The size of this machine is immediately apparent. The engine and front wheels were reused on the Lincoln No.1 Machine. OHMS stands for On His Majesty’s Service. Photo: SOURCE


The number of crew members that the Little Willie would have accommodated is given as five in a single source, a speech given at an anniversary dinner 50 years later for the designers. It is unclear how accurate this information is. Two crew positions were present at the front of the vehicle, for the driver and the co-driver. At least two more crewmen would have been present in the turret, with the other one (or possibly more) manning the machine-guns in the sponsons.

The Track Units

The entire track system of the Lincoln No.1 Machine was imported from the United States, from the Bullock company of Chicago. They were an elongated version of the tracks used on the Creeping Grip tractor built by the same company. This was done because there were no suitable track producers in the United Kingdom and due to expedience, as they were already in production (even though thousands of miles and an ocean away).

The Bullock ‘Creeping Grip’ short tracks, as used on the original tractor. Photo: Commercial Motor magazine, 3rd April 1919
The drive sprocket was at the rear, while the idler was at the front. They both had a distinctive, slightly-spiraled design and were cast. The idler could be used to adjust the track tension. Eight equally-spaced small road wheels held the weight of the tank. These were all held on a single fixed frame. All photos of the Lincoln No.1 Machine show a significant curvature of the roadwheel line. This was apparently done in order to reduce the amount of track in contact with the ground and thus allow the tank to steer. There is indeed an inverse relationship between the contact length of the track and the ease of steering. The return of the track was supported by five return rollers, all fixed to another metal frame. This upper metal frame was connected to the arms of the idler and drive sprocket.
However, telegrams between Crompton and Wilson, sent when the Bullock tracks reached Foster’s, indicate that the tracks did not initially have this curvature, despite it being specified in the order to the Bullock company. This change was done on the 10th of August by lowering the central roadwheels.
There were apparently no springs or suspension parts, which assuredly made for a very bumpy ride. The vehicle was meant to be able to overcome a 1.5 m (5 ft) trench or a 75 cm (2 ½ ft) parapet.
It is interesting to note that all the running gear elements were connected to the ‘Creeping Grip’ frame and not directly to the hull of the Lincoln No.1 Machine. While this certainly affected the resistance and characteristics of the running gear, it nevertheless meant that it was easy to change, as was done when the Tritton system was introduced.

The Lincoln No.1 Machine during trials, showing an excellent view of the tracks. A close examination of the image shows that the first roadwheel has already disconnected with the tracks, landing on the outside of the guide horns when it should have stayed on the inside. Photo: SOURCE
The track links themselves were quite interesting. They were made from cast manganese steel and were 61 cm (24 in) wide. On the inner part, they had four sets of guide horn plates, which ran on either side of the wheels, idler, sprocket and return rollers. This was done in order to decrease the likelihood of the tank throwing its track. These guide horn plates also appear to have been able to rotate slightly in order to accommodate for the large curvature of the track at the front and rear.
The Bullock tracks were poorly manufactured. A report from the official that visited the Bullock factory claimed that, when the tracks did not fit the drive sprocket, the workers solved the problem by hammering the tracks into submission. Nonetheless, the tracks seem to have been unable to handle the larger weight of the Lincoln No.1 Machine and snapped or fell off as soon as the machine started moving in the factory. It must be noted that the vehicle was expected to have an operational life measured in tens of miles in order to accomplish its tasks of crossing the no-man’s-land and engaging the enemy defensive lines.
A larger problem became evident when crossing trenches. As the vehicle crossed the gap, the tracks sagged from under the wheels. When coming on the other side of the trench, the track guide horns would fail to properly connect with the wheels, which would land to the side of their intended central location. This lead to the track being thrown. During tests, this happened with alarming regularity and was, in the end, the downfall of the Creeping Grip track system, which was dropped in favor of a local design. This problem seems to have been due to the lateral flexibility of the tracks themselves.

The Lincoln No.1 Machine going up a slope during trials. Photo: SOURCE


The Lincoln No.1 Machine was tested at Cross O’Cliff Hill, just south of the Lincoln town, on the 19th of September 1915, with Sir Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton, Major Walter Gordon Wilson, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, and others in attendance, including a large crowd of factory workers and their wives. Most of the vehicle was covered with three large textile canvases from the Foster factory. One was suspended over the nose of the vehicle and a larger one was draped over the turret and the hull roof except on the rear-right side. The last canvas hanged from the side of the vehicle on the rear right side. This left the rear-right of the tank’s roof uncovered, allowing the exhaust and fans to function unobstructed.
The vehicle was run through difficult terrain and trenches. However, the tracks were repeatedly thrown off when trying to cross trenches, while the track links themselves were unsuited for the weight of the vehicle and began to break off.
This lead to the abandonment of the Bullock tracks, which were replaced with a new design on the second version of the prototype, now known as the Little Willie. However, by this time, the lozenge-shaped tank concept had already entered development and Little Willie was just a track testing vehicle.
Apparently, the rear wheels also proved unsatisfactory in some way or another, as they were changed to include a hydraulic system. More problems that were identified during tests regarded the turret, which made the tank top-heavy and too tall. It was subsequently abandoned.

Illustration showing how the Lincoln No.1 Machine might have looked during its tests without the canvas cover. Behind it is the Foster Daimler tractor, from which the engine, transmission and front wheels were reused on the tank. Illustration by Tony Bryan, taken from British Battle Tanks: World War I to 1939 by David Fletcher.

The Lincoln No.1 Machine during trials. The two openings at the front are clearly visible, although the hatches themselves seem to be missing. This photo shows the outer side of the tracks, which were of poor quality. Photo: IWM Q 14542

Little Willie specifications

Dimensions (L-w-h) 5.87×2.86×2.51 m (19x9x8 feet)
Total weight, battle ready 16.5 tons
Crew 6
Propulsion Foster-Daimler Knight sleeve valve petrol 105 hp
Speed 3.22 km/h (2 mph)
Range/consumption 30 km/800 liters (18.64 mi)
Armament Vickers 2 Pdr (40 mm) Mk. II
6 Vickers 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine guns
Armour From 10 to 15 mm (0.39-0.59 inches)
Total production One prototype


‘The British Tank: 1915-1919’ by David Fletcher
‘Osprey New Vanguard 100, British Mark I Tank 1916’ by David Fletcher
‘AFV Weapon Profiles 3, Tanks Mark I to V’ by Chris Ellis and Peter Chamberlain
‘A New Excalibur: The Development of the Tank, 1909-1939’ by A.J.Smithers
‘The Tank: Its Birth and Development’ by William Foster and others
‘The Landships of Lincoln’ by Richard Pullen
‘Eyewitness, being personal reminiscences of certain phases of the Great War, including the genesis of the tank’ by Major-General Sir Ernest D. Swinton.
‘History of the Tank’. Dinner Speech on the Commemoration of 50 years since the first use of tanks. January 1977
‘Lincoln No.1 Machine, Little Willie’ by M.J.Verrall, October 1988
‘The Madsen Machine Rifle. Main Characteristics, Organization and Tactical Use’
The Commercial Motor, A SIX – CYLINDER 105 h.p. SLEEVE-VALVE DAIMLER, 3rd April 1913, Page 14
The Commercial Motor, 3rd April 1919
This entire article has been funded by our Patron Golum through our Patreon campaign!

The Lincoln No.1 Machine, sporting the round turret armed with a 2-pounder Pom-Pom gun. Two more Madsen machine-guns are sticking out of the side sponson ports. Illustrated by Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker, funded by our Patron Golum through our Patreon Campaign.

Little Willie – Tank Encyclopedia Support Shirt

Little Willie – Tank Encyclopedia Support Shirt

Little Wille, the first tank prototype, features prominently in this snark shirt! A portion of the proceeds from this purchase will support Tank Encyclopedia, a military history research project. Buy this T-Shirt on Gunji Graphics!

Col. R.E.B. Crompton (Pioneers of Armour)
Col. R.E.B. Crompton (Pioneers of Armour)

By Andrew Hills

The foundations and principles of modern armoured warfare did not appear out of a vacuum, and nor did the machines of WW1 and WW2. Their development was full of false starts, failed ideas, and missed opportunities. Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton was a pioneer in electrical engineering and road haulage who, by the turn of the century found himself in South Africa during the Boer War. Later, in WW1 his early work with the Landships Committee on tracked vehicles sought to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Although his tank designs never saw combat the work he started was carried on by other pioneers and helped to usher in a dawn of armoured and mechanised warfare.

Buy this book on Amazon!

WW1 British Prototypes

Simms Land Torpedo

British Empire (1915) Demolition Vehicle – None Built

Frederick Richard Simms (12/8/1863 to 22/4/1944) was a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He was one of the early pioneers of the British industry having founded his firm, Simms Motors, in about 1896 before joining the British Motor Syndicate (BMS). He had tried his hand at military machines at the turn of the century, first with his Quadricycle Motor Scout – a machine gun mounted on a small powered 4-wheeled bicycle, the Simms Draisine in 1899 (a small railway patrol vehicle fitted with a single machine gun) and with his War Car in 1902 (a large truck-based machine with several guns). None of those machines, however, regardless of what merits they each may or may not have had, led to any military orders.

Mr. Frederick Richard Simms. Photo: Autocar magazine

The Simms Land Torpedo

Simms’ previous military ventures had been at the time of the 2nd Boer War (1899-1902) and were clearly inspired by the need for mobility and firepower combined together to tackle a highly mobile enemy. When war broke out in Europe in 1914 those ideas rapidly became redundant. War quickly became more and more static with fixed lines of defenses. Simms once more saw an opportunity for a potential business contract and to help Great Britain win a war against the country of his birth, Germany.

Simms’ track-laying motor vehicle of 1915.
This new type of war needed a machine to break the deadlock and Simms obviously saw this need. As a result in May 1915, not long after the Landships Committee started working on its own secret tank development, Simms, completely independently, submitted a patent innocuously titled “Improvements on Motor-propelled Vehicles”.
Unlike his wheeled designs, this vehicle was to use “two lateral propelling chains” which would, by means of a differential drive, also provide the steering. Drive to the chains was delivered directly by mechanical gearing but was controlled electrically by means of solenoids. Electrical power, like from his earlier ideas from some of his commercial designs, would come from a dynamo driven by a petrol engine, and would also power pilot lights to enable it to be steered at night. This electrical controls for the motor came out of the back of the vehicle at a point just above the center-point with the dynamo and fuel tanks in front of it and would be controlled by the ‘driver’ some distance behind controlling the torpedo by means of a cable.

The Simms Land Torpedo. Illustrated by Tank Encyclopedia’s own Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker, funded by our Patreon Campaign.
There was no armor specified in the design but bulletproof protection for the “casing” would be required. That is because this odd looking vehicle, instead of carrying a driver, carried an enormous explosive charge on the front to be detonated either electrically or physically (by impact from ramming).
The driver was well away from the vehicle, in a safe position controlling the movements of the vehicle by manipulating the current applied to the track motors maneuvering the vehicle into position for detonation. No dimensions are provided but the drawing of the starting handle would suggest a vehicle approximately chest high which would mean a very substantial explosive charge.

Artwork showing approximate positions of the engine etc. as a cutaway. The wires spool out of the back of the vehicle above the starting handle. Photo: Authors Own
This design, despite being tracked, is not a tank. Instead, it is one of the first examples of a remote-controlled weapon system, the most famous of which would be the German Goliath vehicle in the next war. Despite the obvious advantages on paper of this weapon system, the flaws were apparent too. Tracked systems were still not perfect, and with the cable spooling out behind it any damage to the wires would render this huge bomb completely immobilized. On top of this, the controller of the machine would have to remain in cover to avoid being shot and far enough away not to get caught in the blast. No orders were ever placed and it is not known if the idea ever got as a far as the Munitions Board to consider. The design could also have struggled in the deep craters and broken ground of the front lines. The overhang at the front could easily become stuck in the mud and to rectify this would have meant extending the tracks forward and higher in relation to the height of the vehicle.

German Goliath device from WW2 worked on the same basic principle of being guided by wire to its target and then detonated.


Simms was a successful vehicle maker but he was not a successful designer of military vehicles. Neither his motor scout, his draisine, or his War Car ever received orders from the War Office. This last design though is different, it didn’t go into production but unlike the obvious flaws in the previous designs, this land torpedo design carrying a huge explosive charge into enemy obstacles or positions was a missed opportunity for development and a principle proven to be useful in the following war. An invention well before its time and given the difficulty of crossing wire and enemy obstacles which had necessitated the development of the tank in the first place, it was obviously needed. Had the War Office known about or adopted this idea in whole or in part it could have played an important part in World War 1 but instead is simply yet another patent idea left languishing and ignored. Simms died in 1944, living long enough to see weapons just like this one deployed to the battlefield.


Crew Unmanned
Propulsion Petrol-Electric
Armament Demolition Charge
Armor Bulletproof, thickness unknown

Resources & Links

Patent GB7222 filed 13th May 1915
Autocar Magazine, 11th November 1916

WW1 British Prototypes

Mark VI Tank

UK United Kingdom (1917-18) Heavy tank – 1 wooden mock-up

The Commander’s Post Battle Conference

On 16th June 1917, a conference was held at the 2nd Brigade Headquarters to discuss what happened at the Battle of Arras. Minutes were made of the points discussed. All the Battalion and Brigade commanders were present. Features of the Mark VI tank were discussed. They were all asked the question “Is the Male tank of more assistance to the infantry than the female?”
Wooded mock-up of Mark VI tank. Designed after Battle of Arras, it was an improved Mark V with greater speed, lighter loading and more ease of control
Wooded mock-up of Mark VI tank. Designed after Battle of Arras, it was an improved Mark V with greater speed, lighter loading and more ease of control. Not proceeded with. Note that it was to have one 6-pounder in front, instead of two in sponsons – Source: Imperial War Museum London Q14521 and Q14567
The group answer to that question was, “Female Tanks will kill more of the enemy – Males frighten them more. Agreed that one type of tank with 6-pdr gun in front will probably be the best pattern. Though the 6-pdr gun will have a small arc of fire, it should be capable of being used effectively with an improved pattern of tank. The tank must be more mobile for this. The tank will be lighter and this is considered worth doing so as to ensure being able to close with the enemy, and having a tank not so liable to be ditched.”
This report would have been submitted to the British High Command. The troops wanted a tank designed like the MK VI. What they did not realize was that it had already been designed and a wooden mock-up built back in England.
It was going to be an improved Mark V with greater speed, lighter loading and more ease of control. The most radical design feature was that the Mk VI tank had one 6-pounder gun in the front, instead of two in sponsons.
All-around defense was provided by 6 Hotchkiss machine guns with 10,000 rounds of ammo among them. The Ricardo engine was moved to the side, and the crew compartment was raised, allowing for a compact crew space.
What is interesting about the design is that it featured a new raised cabin that would eventually be used on the Mark VIII. There were four machine guns in ball swivel mounts: two to the front and two to the rear. On the front of each side of the hull, two small machine gun sponsons were fitted.
The tracks were to be widened to 750 mm. An order for 600 Mk VI tanks was placed, to become a part of the recently formed American tank corps. The order was canceled when the Mk.VIII was chosen instead. The furthest the Mk.VI got to being built was a full-scale wooden mock-up.
On 23rd June and 13th July 1917, it was shown to the Military and members of the War Department along with two other wooden mock-ups: the Mark V tank and the Gun Carriage Tank. The Mark V entered production but, like the Mk VI tank prototype, the Gun Carriage was not proceeded with.

The need for change

During the winter of 1916-1917, the British Army future tank design requirements were mainly in respect to an increase in armor protection and armament. As they gained more experience in the deployment of tanks on the battlefield, the calls for more technical improvements in performance became more pressing. Lt-Colonel Stern from the Ministry of Munitions was more concerned with the production of as many tanks as possible and getting them transported to France.
Walter Wilson as Director of Engineering was looking towards the next improved versions of the tank. In the winter of 1916-17, he started work designing two new tanks, the Mk V and the Mk VI. His eagerness to show off these new designs would bring him in conflict with Stern, whose view was “Any tank is better than no tank.”
The two main performance issues with the earlier tanks were the lack of power of the engine and how it steered. The Mk.I to Mk.IV tanks needed four people to work the driving and gear changing mechanism correctly. In the Mark V and Mark VI tanks, only one person would be needed to change gear and drive the tank. With an epicyclic gearbox, the driver alone could control the tank and the commander was freed from the duty of working the steering brakes.
The proposed new Ricardo crosshead valve, water-cooled straight six 19-litre petrol engine would supply 150 hp. It was more powerful than the Foster-Daimler, 6-cylinder in-line sleeve valve 105 hp petrol engine fitted in the early tanks. This new engine was going to be used to power the Mark VI tank.
The Mark VI tank was Wilson’s idea. Side sponsons caused problems when tanks were transported by rail. The early tanks had their sponsons unbolted for train travel. On later versions, the sponsons could be pushed inwards. His new design did away with bulky side sponsons thus making transportation to the battlefront easier.
The new Mark VI tank would have a single 6-pdr gun firing straight forward between the ‘horns’ while the rest of the crew would work in an elevated structure in the middle of the tank firing machine guns.
One of the reasons the Mark VI tank did not enter production was the fact that the factories would have to be ‘rejigged’ as the engine position would have to be shifted from the middle of the tank to one side. The time needed to do this work and the cost was not looked on favorably.

The Side Sponson

Side machine gun sponson on the Mark VI tank
The side machine gun sponsons on both sides were smaller than those on the Mark IV tank. They were also moved a lot more forward. The angled box section at the base of the sponson had a slit at the bottom to allow spent machine gun cartridges to fall out onto the earth outside the tank.

The Mark VI British tank never went into production. This is a ‘what-if’ illustration by David Bocquelet and Craig Moore. It is based on the Mark V tank chassis as both the Mk V and Mk VI wooden mock-ups were shown at the same time. If it entered production it would have seen service in 1918 and therefore be painted khaki earth brown and have the white, red and white Allied identification stripes on the nose. You can just see the barrel of the hull mounted 6pdr gun at the front of the tank.
Mock-up of proposed Mark VI Tank
Mock-up of proposed Mark VI Tank (see also Q 14521). It was meant to have wider tracks, one 6-pounder gun in front, six Hotchkiss guns in a fixed turret, and 150 h.p. Ricardo engine. Mock-up inspected 23rd June and 13th July, 1917, but no decision was reached as to manufacture – Source: Imperial War Museum London Q14566

The 6pdr Gun

6pdr gun ot the front of the Mark VI tank
Only one QF 6 pdr (57 mm) gun (64.7cm short barrel) was fitted to the Mk VI tank – Source: IWM Q14521 – Q14567

The Tank Tower

Mark VI tank tower
The Mark VI’s tower was a proeminent feature. It housed 4 machine-guns.
Tank Tower machine guns
There were four machine guns in ball swivel mounts: two to the front and two to the rear.


Walter Wilson – Portrait of an inventor by A.Gordon Wilson
Imperial War Museum London
The New Excalibur by A J Smithers

Mark VI specifications

Dimensions Length 26ft 5in (8.05m).
Width 8ft 4in (2.53m).
Height 8ft 8in (2.64m)
Total weight 27 tons
Crew 8
Propulsion Ricardo crosshead valve, water-cooled straight six petrol engine, 150hp @ 1250rpm
Road Speed 4.6 mph (7.4 km/h)
Range 45 miles (72.42 km)
Trench Crossing ability 10ft (3.04m)
Armament QF 6 pdr (57 mm) gun (64.7cm short barrel)
6x 0.303 inch (7.62mm) Hotchkiss air-cooled machine guns
Armor From 8 to 16 mm

Tank Hunter WW1
Tank Hunter: World War One

By Craig Moore

The First World War’s fierce battles saw the need to develop military technology beyond anything previously imagined: as exposed infantry and cavalry were mowed down by relentless machine-gun attacks, so tanks were developed. Stunningly illustrated in full colour throughout, Tank Hunter: World War One provides historical background, facts and figures for each First World War tank as well as the locations of any surviving examples, giving you the opportunity to become a Tank Hunter yourself.

Buy this book on Amazon!

WW1 British Prototypes

Killen-Strait Armoured Tractor

UK 1914 United Kingdom (1917-18)
Armoured tractor – 1 Prototype

A first tank contender

The Killen-Walsh Manufacturing Company made farm tractors. It changed its name to Killen-Strait in 1914, to build the agricultural tricycle Strait’s Tractor, designed by William Strait. Their factory was in Meade Street, Appleton, Wisconsin in the USA. The first version was powered by a four-cylinder Doman engine with a 6 x 7-inch bore and stroke engine that produced 40hp. It was known as the 30-50 model. The later version was called the model 3 15-30 tractor but had a less powerful engine. It was powered by a four-cylinder 4 1/2 inch x 5 3/4 inch bore and stroke Waukesha engine that produced 30hp. It was advertised as being able to pull two or three 14 inch ploughs.
Killen-Straits tractor
Killen-Straits tractor advertisement – Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890-1980 by C.H.Wendel
It had one caterpillar track at the front and two at the back. The front track was used to steer the vehicle. The two at the rear provided the propulsion. A small directional metal vane was fitted above it, which showed the driver which way the front track was pointing as visibility from the driver’s seat was poor. The tracks were held together with chains and they were made of hardwood. The working surfaces were faced in steel sheets. The links were joined together with case hardened steel pins 1 inch in diameter and 13 inches long. These pins had a bearing surface over their entire length.
The wheels served to keep the track in line, but were not used to transmit any power. The power is positively applied to the track by driving sprockets with detachable case hardened rims. Three links of the chain engage the sprocket at one time, thus minimizing the wear. The chain could be tightened when necessary by moving the front set of idler wheels forward. The links had depressions in them to engage with the drive sprocket teeth.
The steep angle of the tracks at the rear allowed it to reverse over difficult obstacles that were impassable for other tracked tractors. It has been argued that these upward tilting tracks on the Killen-Strait tractor inspired the rhomboid shape tracks on the front of the future British Mark I tank, but others disagree.
The tracks were held together with chains and they were made of hardwood
The Killen-Strait tractor tracks were held together with chains and they were made of hardwood
The company’s catalog promoted the following selling point. “One great objection advanced against traction engines has been the way in which they packed the soil. The weight of the Strait Tractor is distributed over 3,000 square inches of bearing surface making the machine exert less pressure per square inch on the ground than a man would…. The strait will run easily and lightly over freshly ploughed ground without packing at all.”
The Strait’s Tractor used a 1914 car type transmission gear box with cut steel, case hardened gears running in a bath of oil. The connection to the engine was via a sliding cone clutch faced with Raybestos. The spur gears had four inch faces and a heavy pitch. They had ample strength to take the strain put on them. There were two speeds forward and one reverse gear.
The transmission used in the Strait's Tractor
The transmission gear box used in the Strait’s Tractor
On 30 June 1915, Killen-Strait shipped one of their tractors over to London so they could demonstrate its cross country qualities to members of the British Government and Army high command. Winston Churchill, the 1st Lord of the Admiralty and Minister of Munitions, and the future WW1 Prime Minister David Lloyd George were in attendance. Other observers were the Duke of Westminster, Sir Frederick Black (Director of Munitions Supply), Major General Sir Ivor Phillipps, Major General Scott-Moncrieff, Col Holden, Brigadier General Louis Jackson (Head of Trench Warfare at MoM). Jackson later went on to support Swinton and Tulloch demonstrate the American Holt tractor. The demonstration happened at the Talbot Recreation Ground adjoining to the Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.) Armoured Car Division H. Q., Clement Talbot Works, Barlby Road, Wormwood Scrubs, London.
Churchill was on the lookout for a caterpillar track fitted vehicle that could cross enemy trenches and destroy all wire entanglements. The Ministry of Munitions were looking for a vehicle that could cut the ‘no-mans land’ battlefield barbed wire.
On the same day, the British War Office issued its specification for a ‘machine gun destroyer’ to the Admiralty’s Landships Committee, based at 83 Pall Mall and chaired by Churchill. It is interesting to note that Navy terms were used during the development of the first tanks, not the Army ones. The phrase ‘machine gun destroyer’ can be interpreted in two ways. One is that it is a vehicle that kills machine gun nests and the other is it is a vehicle like a fast agile navy destroyer class ship armed with machine guns. Early tanks were known as Landships.
Lt. Oliver Thorneycroft fitted two scissor-like Royal Navy torpedo net cutters at the end of two protruding shaped metal poles, to the front of the Killen-Strait tractor. The machine was driven into a cat’s cradle of tensioned barbed wire that for demonstration purposes had been prudently strung up at precisely the cutters height. It did not work so well on randomly spaced barbed wire at different heights.
The trials were not successful for the Killen-Strait Manufacturing Company. Although it had good mobility and could negotiate many obstacles put in its way, it was not powerful enough to rip through barbed wire and drag it out of the way to create a path for infantry. When the wire cutter was fitted to the front of the vehicle it took too long to cut the wire and sometimes it failed to cut the barbed wire.
Lt. Symes fitted a turretless Delaunay-Belleville armored car hull onto the tractor chassis. A standard armored car turret could have been fitted at a later date. It was envisioned that this new vehicle would join the ranks of the RNAS Armoured Cars. It made the vehicle very top heavy and gave it a very high profile. This would have made it an easy target for German gunners to see. The main reason the Killen-Strait Tractor did not enter production as a Landship tank was that it could not cross wide trenches.
RNAS Armoured Cars
Royal Naval Air Service armored car stuck in the mud in Belgium 1915
The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) Armoured Car Section was formed for fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, and attacking enemy coastal territory. To cover the great distances along the cost they used armored cars but they found the poor conditions of French and Belgium roads limited their activities. They saw in the Killen-Straits armored tracked tractor a vehicle they could use to get to locations where there were no roads or the roads were in very bad conditions. As the unit grew it was renamed the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Division (RNACD) and spilt into 20 squadrons. In the summer of 1915, the RNACD was disbanded as trench warfare developed.
The armored Killen-Strait Tractor ended its days as a tow tractor at the RNAS Barrow Airship Station. It arrived there in September 1915.

R.N.A.S. Armoured tracked vehicle line drawings

R.N.A.S. Armoured tracked vehicle line drawings top
R.N.A.S. Armoured tracked vehicle line drawings rear view
R.N.A.S. Armoured tracked vehicle line drawings front


Imperial War Museum London
Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890-1980 by C.H.Wendel
The Devil’s Chariots: The origins and secret battles of tanks in the First by John Glanfield

Illustration of the Killen-Strait Tractor by David Bocquelet
straits agricultural farm tractor
Strait’s agricultural farm tractor with sun canopy fitted
Delano-Belleville armoured car hull onto the Straits tractor chassis
Delaunay-Belleville armored car hull fitted onto the Strait’s tractor chassis. You can see it was open topped. A turret could be fitted later if required.Artists impression of the fully tracked Killen-Strait armoured tracked vehicle with turret for the RNAS 501 Armoured Car Squadron.
Artists impression of the fully tracked Killen-Strait armored tracked vehicle with turret for use in the R.N.A.S. 501 Armoured Car Squadron.

Movement trials

Killen-Strait Tractor during the experiments at Wormwood Scrubbs, June 1915.
Killen-Strait Tractor during the experiments at Wormwood Scrubbs, June 1915. (IWM Q14618)
Experiment with Killen-Strait Tractor at R. N. A. S. Armoured Car Division H. Q., Wormwood Scrubbs, June 1915.
Experiment with the Killen-Strait Tractor at the R.N.A.S. Armoured Car Division H.Q., Wormwood Scrubbs, June 1915. (IWM Q14619)
Killen-Strait Tractor at Armoured Car Headquarters at the Clement Talbot Works, Barlby Road, Wormwood Scrubbs. Summer 1915. Note torpedo wire-cutter.
Killen-Strait Tractor at the Armoured Car Headquarters at the Clement Talbot Works, Barlby Road, Wormwood Scrubs. Summer 1915. It is fitted with only one Royal Navy torpedo net wire-cutter, at the end of a metal pole protruding from the front of the vehicle. Later a second wire cutter was added on a separate pole. (IWM Q14616)
Killen-Strait Tractor negotiating slightly rough ground during experiments at Wormwood Scrubbs, June 1915
Killen-Strait Tractor negotiating slightly rough ground during experiments at Wormwood Scrubs, June 1915. With human ballast in place, the little Killen-Strait tractor leaps over a grassy mound in the grounds. (IWM Q14620)
Experiments by the 20th Squadron R. N. A. S, with the Killen-Strait Tractor, at Wormwood Scrubbs, June 1915.
Experiments by members of the 20th Squadron R.N.A.S, with the Killen-Strait Tractor, at Wormwood Scrubs, 30th June 1915. Here they tried to see if more weight at the back of the vehicle would help improve performance. (IWM Q14617)

Barbed Wire dragging and cutting trials

Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Winston Churchill watching experiment with Killen-Strait Tractor, fitted with only one Royal Navy torpedo net wire-cutter, at the end of a metal pole protruding from the front of the vehicle at Wormwood Scrubs, 30th June 1915. The two officers are Major-General Scott Moncrieff and Colonel W. D. Bird (IWM Q14614)
Killen-Strait Tractor fitted with torpedo wire-cutters at Wormwood Scrubbs, 30th June, 1915
Killen-Strait Tractor fitted at the front with an extra Royal Navy torpedo net wire-cutters at the end of two protruding shaped metal poles at Wormwood Scrubs, 30th June, 1915. You can clearly see two wire cutters fitted at different heights. (IWM Q14615)

Company catalogue Artwork

The Strait's tractor illustration from the Company's advertising catalogue.
The Strait’s tractor illustration from the Company’s advertising catalogue.”

Straits Tractor Specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 13ft x 8ft x 6ft (no canopy)
Track width Three choices 18in, 24in or 30in
Total weight 9,500lbs
Top Road Speed 4 mph
Fuel capacity 30 gallons US
Propulsion 30-50 model four-cylinder vertical four cycle Doman 50 hp engine
Propulsion 15-30 model four-cylinder 4 1/2 inch x 5 3/4 inch bore and stroke Waukesha 30hp engine

Tank Hunter WW1
Tank Hunter: World War One

By Craig Moore

The First World War’s fierce battles saw the need to develop military technology beyond anything previously imagined: as exposed infantry and cavalry were mowed down by relentless machine-gun attacks, so tanks were developed. Stunningly illustrated in full colour throughout, Tank Hunter: World War One provides historical background, facts and figures for each First World War tank as well as the locations of any surviving examples, giving you the opportunity to become a Tank Hunter yourself.

Buy this book on Amazon!