The last name Wagner is more usually associated with classical music than armored vehicles, but Frederick Wagner of Detroit, USA may have had more than the compositions of his last-name sake on his mind when, in 1918, he submitted a patent application for a deceptively simply named ‘War Tank’.
Frederick W. Wagner of Detroit, Michigan may well have been one of the tens of thousands of immigrants to that part of Michigan who arrived in the years preceding the First World War from Germany and Poland. Sadly, the name is common enough both there and in Detroit at the time that it is not possible from available records to find more biographical information on him. What is clear, however, is that from a review of his design that his ideas were not as outlandish, impractical, or separate from mechanical possibility as many of those which had gone before or since. Indeed, it could be theorised that Wagner had either some experience in the vehicle field or at a minimum had done some research on armored vehicles when working on his own design. With both tracks and wheels, Wagner’s War Tank is not even one of those peculiarly limited number of wheel-cum-track machines which became popular during the period between the end of WW1 and start of WW2.
The donor vehicle for Wagner’s design, if it could be called that, appears to be based around a large agricultural or industrial tractor of some sort, with a pair of large wheels at one end and a pair of small wheels at the other. Usually, this arrangement is done so that the large wheels, which bear the majority of the load, are the driven wheels and the smaller wheels are steered. Also usually, these are arranged so that the large wheels are at the back and the small wheels at the front, a layout still on many tractors to this day.
Wagner, however, had swapped this around. Not only are the small wheels at the back but also the large wheels which are at the front are the wheels used for steering. At first glance, this seems illogical, as larger wheels are harder to steer but the logic is actually clear as Wagner‘s vehicle would benefit when it comes to climbing over a parapet or across a trench where these large wheels are less prone to becoming stuck. One point of note on the wheels is that they were to be fitted with solid rubber tyres according to the text but are shown with agricultural-style ribbed steel treads around the circumference. A pronounced rib on the inner ring of the wheels is described as “detachable flanges”. The purpose of these ribs or flanges is so that, when not operating on road (on the rubber tyres), or off road in soft mud (on the tracks and steel treads), it could be conveyed on a railway either by itself or by being towed. In total, the vehicle was to be around 30 feet (9.14 m) long and 15 feet (4.57 m) high with a maximum width of 10 feet (3.05 m).
Automotive power for Wagner’s design is somewhat lacking. He clearly states that the engine is to be a somewhat inadequate 50 hp, although he does not state if this was to be petrol, diesel, or kerosene. Power would be delivered by a simple connection of shafts which then drove chains connected to the rear wheels at both sides and the rearmost wheel of the four-wheel track unit slung underneath the hull. No means are provided by which to raise or lower the track units on each side, as they would only be in use when the vehicle sank into soft mud. Even so, as the large front wheels remain undriven, the entire effort of propulsion through the mud would be left to these small track units and small driven wheels. With such little horsepower available, it seems likely that Wagner’s War Tank would simply become hopelessly stuck very quickly once it sank into the ground. With the track units fixed, the vehicle is really an Armored Car with some track assistance rather than a ‘tank’ in the true sense of the world.
Multiple armaments are mounted on Wagner’s design, with two sponsons projecting from each side, a limited traverse gun mounted in the front and a fully rotatable turret on the roof. Mounted in all of these positions are what Wagner described only as “rapid fire guns” and then drawn as small cannons. The sponson guns are undoubtedly the weakest part of his design, as both of them can only face forwards or to about 90 degrees to the side. Whilst this means a lot of potential forward-facing firepower it also seriously limits the effectiveness of the machine. Perhaps this is why a small loophole is also provided in the side wall below the turret through which another rapidly firing weapon could be fired. Even so, that would only allow fire directly to the side and not forwards. The gun at the front would likewise be very limited to doing anything other than firing across a limited forward arc. To assist in firing, a searchlight was to be provided at some point on the vehicle (not shown) so it could operate at night.
It is the turret which is perhaps the most useful part of the design and something which, in 1918, was not even present on many tanks. With the ability to deliver firepower or allow for easy observation in all directions, the turret would logically be placed at the top or at least the front section of the vehicle. Here, however, in probably the single largest flaw in Wagner’s design, the turret is not only placed in the back half but also cannot fire to about 90 degrees of the front due to the built-up superstructure at the front half to accommodate two sponsons and the forward-facing gun. This limits the potential of the turret to just around 270 degrees of traverse and, with the rest of the guns positioned as they are, that at no point could Wagner’s design ever bring all of its guns to bear on a single target or even in a single direction whether fore, aft, or to the side.
No specific number of crew are mentioned by Wagner in his application and obviously at least one man is needed just to drive the machine, whether it is a ‘tank’ or a truck. With two guns in the sponsons projecting from each side, a turret and the forward-facing gun, men will obviously be needed to operate those weapons too. Even with just one man per gun, that is at least another 6 men for a crew of likely not less than 7 in total.
The driver would still be sat alone in the front, sandwiched between those two large front wheels, although his head height from the drawings would be above the top of the wheels so they would not obstruct his vision to the side.
The armored body of Wagner’s War Tank offers no finery or finesse in terms of shape, as it consists of not much more than a large rudimentary box. Wagner had, however, done this with the goal of having the body as simple as possible, so that it could be removed easily. With no armor, the machine would be left as a heavy utility vehicle for hauling guns or carrying men and stores. Here, once more the switch from the usual location of the small wheels at the front to at the back has an advantage for Wagner – it simply permits a larger load to be carried when not in use as a tank. In terms of protection, Wagner is clear that the vehicle would have armor plating (presumably steel) ¾ inch (19 mm) thick, certainly thick enough to protect against all of the standard small arms of the era.
Wagner’s ‘War Tank’ is certainly an interesting design coming in the final months of WW1 in Western Europe. The designer has clearly spent some time considering the relative merits of tracks and wheels and more so, the merits of large versus small wheels for traction. The wheeled part of his scheme, switching from the convention of small front to larger rear wheels provided the design with flexibility as a load carrier as for crossing obstacles. Likewise, the ability to use rubber tyres would provide a smooth ride of the road or then with the steel treaded wheels to gain traction off-road, and to provide for a means of movement by rail was a notable plus too. The tracks however, are simply superfluous. Slung underneath, they add a lot of weight and complication without any benefit up to the point of being bogged down, whereupon the low engine power seemingly would leave the vehicle stranded.
Whilst the adoption of a turret was a good idea for this vehicle, the multiple other weapons and the poor positioning seriously limits both the effectiveness of the turret and other weapons.
Overall, Wagner’s War Tank, whilst having some interesting technical merits and ideas, was a failure. No vehicles were made and, by the time the patent was granted, the war was effectively over anyway.
|Dimensions (L x W x H)||30ft x 10ft x 15ft
(9.14 m x 3.05 m x 4.57 m)
|Crew||1 + at least 6|
|Propulsion||50 hp liquid fuel|
|Armament||Rapid firing guns x 6|
|Armor||3/4 in (19 mm)|
|Total production||None built|
US Patent US1292170 War Tank, filed 17 July 1918, granted 21 January 1919