In 1903, the author H.G. Wells wrote a short fictional story for the Strand Magazine titled ‘The Land Ironclads’. It was not, as commonly perceived, the first such idea for an armored land-warfare vehicle. James Cowen, for example, beat him to that in the UK by half a century, but Wells was certainly reflecting some of the thought of the time. It was, after all, just a couple of years since armored traction engines had been sent to war in South Africa and Frederick Simms’ War Car. There was also another name in Great Britain, almost forgotten by history, who pictured armored land-vehicles as shaping future warfare before WW1. Denied the platform of a well-read national platform like the Strand and a reputation like Wells, it is unsurprising that John Corry is a name alien to most. Corry though, despite his obscurity, featured within the investigations post-WW1 into who invented the tank and where these ideas originated.
John Anderson Corry was a young man from Leeds, in the north of England, and a shoemaker by trade, who fancied himself as an inventor. In 1910, he demonstrated a model of what he called his ‘aerial torpedo’ in various music halls across the country. A year later, in 1911 he invented a potentially far more lucrative idea, one he described as “a moving fort” and an “ironclad”, and in early November 1911, Corry was in his local newspapers describing his military inventions. Just a few days later, on 14th November 1911, he wrote to Winston Churchill, then First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, to describe his ideas for a land ironclad on tracks and other military inventions.
Letter to Churchill
With a small mention in a couple of newspapers which took some interest in his invention, Corry wrote (including the press cuttings) to the Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill who was, at the time, the First Lord of the Admiralty.
In his letter, Corry took care to describe the machine in greater detail than was recorded by the newspapers extolling its virtues and suggesting that 200 of them should be built at an estimated cost of GB£600,000 (~GB£70 m in 2019 values). Across 200 vehicles, this means Corry was estimating the cost of each one at around GB£3,000 each (~GB£35,000 in 2019 values). For his part, Corry was not asking much, just GB£400 per annum (GB£46,000 in 2019 values) for this invention and was willing to wait upon his vehicle proving itself as viable before he even got any of that money. Even in 1911, Corry described his financial position as “rotten”, but that he had received interest in his ideas from a couple of unnamed South American republics. Whether that was true or not, his financial position seems to have remained poor.
No picture of Corry’s model or design is known to survive, but there are descriptions, both in the newspaper articles of the time and more crucially in his letter to Churchill. This description, which survives in the Leeds Mercury of 10th November 1911, is of a vehicle weighing some 50 tons (50.8 tonnes) and “resembling a turtle”, suggesting an appearance not unlike that of Wells’ ironclads from 1903. Where it differed substantially from Wells’ ironclad though was that Corry was not suggesting wheels or ‘pedrail wheels’, but actual tracks.
Corry’s ironclad was, according to Corry, and as reported in the media, to be armed with no less than four 4.7” (120 mm) guns and 8 Maxim machine guns. It is not clear which 4.7” (120 mm) guns Corry might have been considering, but it is probable that he was referring to a naval gun like the QF 4.7”, a 40 calibre gun capable of firing a 45 pound (20.4 kg) shell out to a range of around 12,000 yards (11,000 m). Each of those guns weighed around 2 tonnes, so four of them would be at least 8 tonnes or so just for the main guns. How they were to be arranged is also unclear as Corry merely describes the arrangement so that “three can operate on any spot at once”. If that is unclear, then Corry’s description of how the machine guns were arranged is more so. Corry described the arrangement of these 8 machine guns as allowing for “three firing fore and aft or 5 on either side”
Corry stated that his vehicle was to be crewed by around 30 men. Assuming two men per machine gun (2 x 8 = 16) and 3 per 4.7” gun (3 x 4 = 12), this would leave (12 + 16 = 28) a couple of men to fulfill the duties of commander and driver. Whatever arrangement Corry had considered is not made clear in either the newspapers or in his letter to Churchill.
Corry had not described a machine to meet the needs of the WW1 battlefield, those were still a few years away. Instead, he had described what was a prevailing concern in many quarters at the time, a seaborne invasion. Corry predicted that “such a thing patrolling our coasts… would undoubtedly prevent an enemy landing, or would wipe them out in an attempt to land”
In a little touch of hubris, Corry suggested his ironclad had the fighting potential of an army (infantry, cavalry, and artillery combined) of 2,000 men. More than this, Corry pictured his 200 land ironclads scattered around the coastlines of Britain. Spread around the coastline, 200 miles (322 km) apart they could retreat up to 16 miles (25.7 km) inland so as to be out of range of enemy naval gunfire supporting an invasion.
As this large vehicle would be inland and have to advance to make contact with an invasion force, Corry suggested a smaller version, faster than this large type, could close upon the enemy landings at high speed to make them hard to hit with naval gunfire. He provides no additional details of this smaller type of his machine, but logically it would be lighter, carry less armament, and be crewed by fewer men.
No form of automotive power other than “two petrol engines of between 100 and 200 hp” was specified by Corry but he did state or rather ‘claim’ a potential speed of 18 and 20 mph (29 – 32 km/h). The smaller vehicle was estimated, again in a highly optimistic manner, to have a top speed of between 40 and 50 mph (64 – 80 km/h).
Not only was the vehicle fast, substantially faster than a man could walk, but also it was mounted on tracks. Corry’s design was described as having that pair of engines drive “two endless chains [i.e. tracks], fitted with massive ‘treads’”. By way of what the media described as “its peculiar construction”(presumably relating to its tracks), Corry stated that this vehicle was going to be able to climb walls up to 10 feet (3.05 m) high.
Corry did not specify what sort of tracks he was referring to, but 1911 was an interesting year for military tracked vehicles in the UK. The Lincolnshire-based firm of Richard Hornsby and Sons. had submitted three vehicles for traction trials for the army between 1905 and 1911. These trials were managed by the Mechanical Traction Committee (M.T.C.) and were generally successful in showing the potential of tracked vehicles and had, as early as 1908 and 1910, led to suggestions of mounting a gun and armor respectively. Whilst there is no information available on which to identify where Corry’s inspiration may have come from, these trials which took place just before his own claim could easily have helped to shape them.
Corry did not stop with the tracked ironclad either. He was also to claim the invention of a secrecy wireless telegraphy system although even by his own statement the range on his test model was just 28 feet (8.5 m) – certainly not very useful for the Army. In fairness, he did state that it could be used for long distance communication and the transmission of a secret and undetectable message even at a short distance by radio is not a minor thing. Even so, that idea was not taken up.
Nonetheless, that idea was not the end of Corry’s inventiveness. He also claimed the invention of a new design of propellor for boats which was more efficient and allowed for the somewhat improbable speed of up to 152 knots (175 mph / 282 km/h), a “sensible aeroplane”, and a multitude of inventions of gun sights for “guns of every description”. Disappointingly, these additional inventions went undescribed.
Corry missed out on any recognition or money post-World War I for his ideas. There had been, starting in 1918, a push to determine the who, what, where, and when of the invention of tanks and to award money for the ideas. Corry’s information was certainly made available to the commission in the form of his letter to Winston Churchill, but his idea was ignored. His case was taken up briefly on 29th November 1932 by Major James Milner (Member of Parliament for Leeds South East) in the House of Commons. Here, Major Milner pressed Mr. Duff Cooper (Financial Secretary to the War Office) on John Corry’s claim to be the first person to submit precise details of a ‘tank’ on 14th November 1911. Corry was unemployed by this time, had never received a penny for his inventions from the government. Major Milner raised the question over Corry asking Mr. Cooper:
“whether he is aware that Mr. John Anderson Corry…. was the first person to submit precise details of his invention of a tank, then described as a land ironclad, to the War Office… [and]… that to ensure secrecy in the national interest Mr. Corry did not make his invention public; that he has been unable to obtain any compensation and is now unemployed; and whether he will take steps to see that Mr. Corry receives appropriate recognition and compensation?”
Mr. Cooper’s reply was dismissive and also inaccurate:
“I am aware that Mr. Corry submitted on 14th November, 1911, a description of a land ironclad, and that his project was mentioned in the Press at the same time. There was no novelty in the principle of his proposal. Mr. Corry’s claim for compensation has been investigated by both the War Office and the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, and the decision that he is not entitled to any award has been consistently upheld.”
The idea that a tracked armored vehicle armed with heavy guns and machine guns was not a novel one in 1911 is wholly incorrect. Certainly it was not the first armored vehicle suggested to the War Office or even the first tracked vehicle offered, but it was assuredly one of, if not the first vehicle to be armed, tracked, and armored at the same time. Mr. Cooper’s response was either disingenuous or simply misinformed. Major Milner pressed Mr. Cooper further on the matter in the following exchange:
Major MILNER: Do I understand that, although it is admitted that this man was the first to submit the idea to the War Office, the War Office is not willing to consider the payment of some compensation to him?
Mr. COOPER: It is not admitted that he was the first to submit the suggestion.
Major MILNER: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that another military officer has been awarded a very substantial sum on the grounds that he was the first to submit this idea, and that the date was July, 1914, whereas the date of Mr. Corry’s submission was 1911?
Mr. COOPER: There was no novelty in the proposal put forward by Mr. Corry. As the hon. and gallant Member is probably aware, suggestions of this kind have been put forward for the last 2,000 years.
Major MILNER: If this idea has been common property for 2,000 years, why have the Government already paid another individual £15,000 as if the idea was something novel?
Mr. COOPER: Because he put forward a practical suggestion which really assisted the invention as finally made.
Corry’s letter is very revealing, not just for being an armed, tracked, and armored land vehicle designed to fight enemy forces but becasue who he wrote to. It was, afterall, Churchill who post-World War I received a lot of credit for thinking up the idea of an armored land vehicle. Whilst H.G. Wells’ Land Ironclads as a story was certainly known to at least some members of what was to become the Landships Committee, formed on Churchill’s ordered in February 1915, there is no proof that Churchill knew of them.
Here though, there can be no doubt. Winston Churchill received this letter from Corry in November 1911, over 3 years before he started trying to form a committee to discuss the problems of armored land warfare. For his part, Churchill should certainly have paid Corry’s ideas a little more attention. As far as is known from the records of the letter, Churchill did not even reply to Corry and in 1915 was suggesting his own ideas for an armored vehicle. It would not be until February 1915 that a track-based landship was decided upon in preference to wheels. Had Churchill paid more heed to Corry, engaged with him a little and possibly evaluated his ideas, it seems hard to imagine how an armored track layer would have to have waited until 1915 to be born.
This is not to say Corry’s idea was a good one. The armament was as ridiculous as it was excessive, the crew compliment huge, suggestive of a vehicle of a great size, certainly larger than could easily be accommodated on the road or rail network of the day. The speeds he estimated for his vehicles (large and small versions) were no less unrealistic given the state of tracked-vehicle technology in 1911, yet it cannot be ignored that Corry had seen a potential where others had not. He had tried to garner interest in his ideas through the media, and through the government and got nowhere. Even in 1932, well after the end of the war and with tanks in service with dozens of countries, Corry was denied any recognition for his idea – a most unfitting response to a clear vision for the direction land warfare would take just a few years afterwards. What became of Corry is unclear at this time, but the whole Burley Village area where he was living in 1932 was demolished in the mid 1950’s for redevelopment and, along with it, much hope for tracing one of the first minds in modern armored warfare.
Reconstruction of Corry’s Land Ironclad based on his description produced by Mr. C. Ryan, funded by our Patreon campaign.
Specifications – John Corry’s Ironclad (large type)
|Total weight, battle-ready||50 tons (50.8 tonnes)|
|Propulsion||2 x 100 – 200hp petrol engines|
|Speed||18 – 20 mph (29 – 32 km/h)|
|Armament||four 4.7” (120 mm) guns and 8 Maxim machine guns.|
|Step||10 feet (3.05 m)|
Specifications – John Corry’s Ironclad (Smaller type)
|Total weight, battle-ready||<50 tons (50.8 tonnes)|
|Propulsion||2 x 100 – 200hp petrol engines|
|Speed||40 and 50 mph (64 – 80 km/h)|
UK National Archives records R1940, Papers relating to Landships
Leeds Mercury newspaper, 10th November 1911
Daily News newspaper, 8th November 1911
Leeds City Council leodis.net
Hansard. (1932). Parliamentary Debates: Official Report Volume 272.