The Second Boer War, fought by the British Empire against both the South African Republic and the Orange Free State from October 1899 to May 1902, was an enormous challenge for the British. Despite an enormous military advantage on paper, the British were fighting a war thousands of miles from their main bases of power in the UK and India, across the vast areas of South Africa over difficult terrain and difficult environmental conditions, ranging from the hot weather to the flies. The Boers, on the other hand, were fighting on land they knew well, able to supply themselves with what they needed and well supplied initially with modern German rifles. Highly mobile on horseback, Boer Kommandos were able to conduct highly effective raids on extended British supply lines and outmaneuver the British, who at the start of the war were not well prepared for a long and difficult fight against a well-motivated and skilled opponent. Having started the war poorly under the command of General Redvers Buller, the British soon got round to sending troops and supplies to the war and replaced General Buller with Lord Roberts, who was determined to protect his supply lines. In doing so, he was to produce probably the first armored self-propelled vehicle – nearly a generation before tanks first appeared in World War 1.
A key concern for Lord Roberts was ensuring that his overland supply routes were secured. There were railway lines, but these were hard to protect due to the distances involved and proved to be an easy target for sabotage, blowing up bridges, etc. Any other supplies had to be moved by animal-drawn wagon-trains and these were slow and extremely vulnerable to disease, attacks by wild animals and Boer bullets. As such, Lord Roberts was left with very long and tenuous supply lines.
In spring 1900, a solution presented itself – mechanical haulage of supplies. Supplies could be moved by means of steam-traction engines which required only fuel and water, and could haul much more useful loads without reliance on fixed and exposed railway lines. Of course, a traction engine in its own right is not bulletproof and neither is the driver, so the answer was obvious – clad a traction engine in armor plate.
To this end, Lord Roberts ordered 6 armored traction engines, each of which came with 3 specially designed armored wagons. Unarmored wagons could, of course, be towed as well if the supplies were not vulnerable, such as building materials or hay, but vulnerable cargo like ammunition and men could be carried behind the bulletproof plates. On top of this excellent utility, the engine was also sufficiently powerful to haul a pair of 6″ guns along with their stores, ammunition and crew. All told, a total load of 60-tons (61 tonnes) could be towed by a single-engine, a load made up by guns and wagons, whether armored or otherwise. Six such engines meant that Lord Roberts would have, at least theoretically, the ability to move around 360 tonnes of men and arms wherever he liked protected from Boer bullets.
The engines for the vehicle came from the Leeds-based firm of Messrs. Fowler and Co. Ltd. but the person responsible for the design of the armor and of the carriages is not known for certain. Some unarmored but ‘special purpose’ wagons for South Africa were designed by the carriage works at Woolwich Arsenal, so it is possible that they were involved in that part of the work. One person certainly involved was Captain Nugent of the Royal Engineers. While attached to the War Office, his role was key in getting the project made, but whether or not he designed the actual disbursement of the armor and fittings, he was definitely responsible for the leather strips between the plates which stopped them from rattling. This might seem like a small thing but it does illustrate the closeness of his involvement in the project. The periodical ‘The Daily Graphic’ of May 1900 gives credit for the idea to Lord Roberts and the design to Cpt. Nugent. One name not involved in the design who was around at the time was Rookes Crompton. Crompton was working for Lord Roberts on the problems of moving supplies and guns involving traction engines and was even made a Colonel as a result of his actions in South Africa.
Investigations show that he was in South Africa with his electrical engineering unit at the time of these vehicles being made but, being an expert in road traction, he would certainly have taken an interest in these vehicles and would have known about them. He was also back in Britain before the last ones were sent, so he would also have the opportunity to examine them. Nonetheless, and despite some claims to the contrary (notably, Crompton himself never claimed that he assisted the project), he had no direct involvement in the design, although it is not to say that it might not have influenced his own later work on his Emplacement Destroyers in WW1.
The traction engines for this task were manufactured by the firm of John Fowler and Co. Ltd., of Leeds, England, and were the ‘Super Lion’ model. Each Super-Lion weighed 17.5-tons (17.8 tonnes) and was fitted with a pair of rear wheels 7′ (2.13 m) high and 24″ (610 mm) wide.
Protection for these engines was provided by 4.5-tons (4.6 tonnes) of Cammell Laird and Co.’s 5/16″ (7.94 mm) thick bullet-proof armor plating formed into a large box-shape covering the whole of the engine. Other plates, for the bottom of the driving cab and the roof, were made from ¼” (6.35 mm) thick armor plate and the whole affair was fastened together by means of bolts and rivets. Messrs. Cammell Laird and Co. rated the vertical armor as providing protection against both the British Lee-Metford and the German Mauser rifles at a range of just 20 yards (18 m). Given the ranges at which many of the Boer ambushes were often taking place from over 200 yards (182 m) away, such protection could be seen as excessive and producing undue weight. As little as ¼” (6.35 mm) would probably have sufficed.
Despite the weight of the armor, however, these engines could still manage between 2 and 6 mph (3 to 10 km/h) on a good firm surface. For reference, without the armor, the engine was capable of up to 8 mph (13 km/h) in top gear with an operating range of 10-17 miles (16 to 27 km). The steam boiler, by virtue of its copper fire-box, was efficient and could burn whatever fuel might be available, such as wood, coke, coal or even dried dung. Its range was limited only by how much water and fuel it could carry. When using coal, the machine burned 7 cwt. (356 kg) of coal for every 30 miles (42 km) traveled.
Fully laden with armor, this vehicle was intended to weigh in at 17.5-tons (17.8 tonnes) with a 60-ton (61.0 tonnes) towing capacity, but was overweight at 22-tons (22.4 tonnes). As such, the load capacity was reduced to around 55 – 56 tonnes.
The design of the armor was somewhat crude, consisting of large flat plates bolted or riveted together on a vehicle not designed for such a thing. The drawbacks of weight were obvious but less apparent was the effect on the driver. Stood or sat at the back, behind the boiler, the driver hads, even under ordinary circumstances, a severely restricted view ahead. The armored cab afforded protection but it also further restricted his view and, standing on either side, he would only be able to see along each side of the engine through a small rectangular window. Additional windows were provided in the sides of the cab extensions and one in the rear of each as well, but nonetheless, the already poor visibility got substantially worse. The ordinary steering position for the driver was at the rear right and so, to see along the left side of the boiler, a mirror was fitted on the left-hand side of the cab so he did not have to move to see ahead.
The armored engine was only one part of the ‘road train’, the other were the carriages. These were not simply some wooden carriages clad in armor either. They were designed-for-purpose. Each carriage was mounted on 4 wheels, 2 small ones at the front, and a pair of larger wheels at the back. The sides of each carriage sloped gently out at the base before sloping back in again at an estimated 20° angle (from the vertical) towards the top. This sloping created angled sides which would help with deflecting bullets and allowed for men and stores behind the armor to be protected.
The roof of the carriage was open, which allowed fresh air for the men. If the stores carried were vulnerable to fire, like ammunition, the sides could actually fold down to provide an armored roof. Loopholes in the sides and front of the wagons allowed for the men inside to fire their rifles out without having to expose themselves, meaning these carriages could also be used as a static blockhouse if required. No loopholes were provided in the rear.
This was not the end of the utility of the carriages either. Not only could they carry stores and/or men, they could also carry a field gun. The engine still had the ability to tow a gun, but with the use of a pair of angle-iron ramps at the back and opening the large rear doors, a 6″ howitzer or 4.7″ field gun could be hauled inside, although the 4.7″ gun would have the barrel sticking out due to its length.
Production and Trials
Despite 6 engines being ordered, just 4 were built and fitted with armor, numbers 8894, 8895, 8898 and 8899 (note that 8896 and 8897 are missing from this sequence). Engine 8894 and 8895 were built in May and June 1900, respectively, and tested in the Leeds area prior to being sent out to South Africa.
Trials held in Leeds on 16th May 1900 were not well regarded. It was reported by observers from the trade press that this engine (presumably 8894, as 8895 was not finished until June per company records) entered a soft ploughed field with a slight slope towing its wagons and gun. Going downhill, it all worked fine, but on the way back it was unable to traverse the slope, tearing it up.
This was a significant problem and reflected very poorly on the off-road ability of the machine but was somewhat unfair as the engine did resolve the problem. To do so, it simply ditched the wagons and gun, drove up the slope and then used its powerful winching drum pulling a steel cable through the back. In doing so, the engine hauled up all of the loads up the hill, albeit incurring a delay.
Despite the relatively poor showing of the engines, 8894 and 8895 were sent out to South Africa in July to August 1900. The remaining two engines (8898 and 8899), were both finished in October and were sent out to December 1901.
Despite the potential for hauling heavy supplies immune from Boer bullets, the engines saw little or no actual use as armored vehicles. Instead, these four engines (two more engines were delivered later unarmored) were stripped of their armor plating and put to use as ordinary traction engines in the service of the Imperial Military Railway (IMR). Had they been employed across the large open areas of the veldt (South African grassland), they would no doubt have provided a valuable addition to the supply situation during the war. The war continued into May 1902 but, by the time these engines had arrived, the problems of supply were being resolved. The Boers ability to operate was progressively diminished, albeit at a huge cost in terms of the numbers of men sent by Britain to tie them down.
The armored road train certainly had flaws, as it was slow and it was not good at climbing slopes, as illustrated by its trials in May 1901. What it did have, however, was the ability to move men and goods behind armor. Protected from Boer attacks, these could have been used to provide the supplies needed to pursue a lengthy and difficult war across wide-open areas. The end of the war, the problems with the engines, and perhaps the novelty of them as a new weapon of war meant that they never had the opportunity to be tested and evaluated properly in action.
There were other armored vehicles before and after the Fowler B5 running up to the start of World War I in 1914, yet no army was properly equipped with armored vehicles to haul men or guns at the start of the Great War.
Illustration of the B5 Armoured Road Train produced by Bernard Baker, funded by our Patreon Campaign.
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||19 9″ (6.05 m) long x 7′ 11 ½” (2.43 m) wide, 12′ 1 ½” (3.70 m) high (to top of chimney) 10′ 11 ½” (3.34 m) wheelbase|
|Weight||17.5 tons / 17.8 tonnes (unarmoured), 22-tons / 22.4 tonnes (armoured)|
|Crew||1 (driver) (possibly a stoker as well)|
|Armour||5/16″ (7.94 mm) on vertical plates, ¼” (6.35 mm) on other plates – proof against the British Lee-Metford Rifle and the German Mauser Rifle used by the Boers at 20 yards (18 m)|
|Propulsion||180 psi. (1,241 Kilopascals) boiler, 10 nhp (10 hp), composite spring-mounted type (copper firebox) producing 70/80 continuous Indicated Horse Power (I.H.P.) with 115/125 max. I.H.P. for short periods. Belt hp ranges from 30 to 48 (max.)|
|Speed||8 mph (13 km/h, unarmoured), 2 to 6 mph (3 to 10 km/h, armoured)|
Hills, A. (2019). Col. R.E.B.Crompton. Pioneers of Armour Vol.2. FWD Publishing, USA
The Daily Graphic’ 18th May 1900
The Engineer 18th May 1900
The Electrical Journal Vol.34, 18th January 1901, 19th April 1901
Layriz, O. (1900). Mechanical traction in war for road transport. MArston and Co. London, UK
Nowers, J. (1994). Steam traction in the Royal Engineers. North Kent Books, Rochester, UK
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.