Genesis of the Concept
The very first British tank (and the first in the world at the same time) derived from a number of projects dating back to the early 1915 stalemate. Then the first ideas advocated less for an armored fighting vehicle and more for a way to clear up barb wire, which was usually covered by direct, accurate machine gun fire. The alternative at the time were night operations by small detachments, but these were tricky. A noise (tin cans were often attached to the supports of the barb wire), a flare, and then heavy fire caused havoc on the raiding party.
Later, other experiments included the reintroduction of armor, various man-carried protections, but each time they were shown to be of little use against bullets, prone to concussions and the legs and arms of the operators were not protected. A big wheel with spinning hooks mounted on the front of a Holt tractor was the preferred concept at the time. But the need to protect the driver and the evolution of military thinking led to the “land cruisers”, which ultimately never left the drawing board.
Despite its seemingly cute name, the “Little Willie” was, in fact, an impressive war machine conceived to punch a hole in the German lines. It was officially named a “tank” to deceive any enemy intelligence on the project.
“Little Willie” is the name given to the Lincoln No.1 Machine after it received the Tritton tracks that replaced the previous Bullock tracks. By that time, work on the rhomboid tanks had started in earnest and Little Willie was just a track testing vehicle.
The Landships Committee was established in February 1915 as a small British War Cabinet commission, headed by the first Lord of Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill, and composed of various politicians, engineers and officers, with the goal of producing the first armored vehicle before the end of 1915.
Testing the Lincoln Machine
The initial Lincoln No.1 Machine had a set of elongated Bullock Creeping Grip tractor tracks. But, due to the sheer weight of the hull and the mud, traction resistance of the plain, flat track was just too much for the tiny engine, which also led to poor steering. Other tracks were tested until Lt. Gordon Wilson ultimately delivered the right solution.
A combination of new, hard-steel plates riveted to links with guides to be firmly kept in place, and connected to the hull with large spindles. This was done by the end of September, and ultimately proven by far the most reliable system. It was kept for every British tank in the war, although it limited speed. The motor was a powerful 105 bhp Daimler engine at the back of the hull (the basis was the Foster-Daimler tractor), fed by one internal fuel tank.
Because of the abandonment of the turret, the 2-pounder Pom-Pom gun was abandoned. The sponson slots for the Madsen 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Machine guns were retained, although it is unclear if it had been decided to replace them with another locally-available model. Intended crew was six at least, and the hull was made of boiler plates, although these would have been replaced with armor if the vehicle would have ever seen service.
William Tritton, who headed the project, felt the Lincoln No.1 Machine did not satisfy his expectations and started work on a second one, which would lead to the far more famous Tank Mk. I. It included a rhomboid track frame with the armament mounted on sponsons in the hull after the removal of the turret.
In December, the first prototype received the name “Little Willie” after the press mocking the German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm, and the second “Big Willie” after his father. But after further extensive tests, only the concept of Big Willie was retained for production (although the first British tank series differed in many aspects).
It was, in January 1916, the world’s first pre-production tank prototype, one month before the French Schneider CA-1 made its debut.
Little Willie specifications
|Dimensions (L-w-h)||5.87×2.86×2.51 m (19x9x8 feet)|
|Total weight, battle ready||16.5 tons|
|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|
Thomas Hetherington, supported at first by Churchill, proposed a real “land ironclad”, weighing about 300 tons, equipped with a large range of guns and machine guns. But while the idea was attractive on paper, not even naval-grade engines could match up to such a monster. But the idea of a heavy cross-country vehicle made its debut. An artillery tractor was soon envisioned as the basis for a more practical design.
In July 1915, after many discussions, a specification was issued for a war engine able to cross a 1.5 m (5 feet) trench. This was the start of a project rush and, in the end, the winner was William A. Tritton of the agricultural William Foster & Co of Lincoln. He had given an order to produce a double-tracked prototype, also being responsible for the design.
Fate and Further Development
Little Willie (now at the Bovington museum) was the basis for the Medium Mk. A “Whippet” as well as for the tracks of the production Mk. I. As the length of the tracks proved so important to cross obstacles, subsequent trials on the new Mk. I tank led to the famous lozenge design, where the tank had its tracks run the whole length and height.
The crew would probably have been made of seven persons, in a confined, dark, hot, steamy and noisy environment. It had no suspensions at all, so any bumps on the ground were fully resented.
Many considered the tank too high and an easy target for enemy guns. The relatively lightly armored hull was largely considered sufficient, but the Germans later proved that a single “K” armor-piercing bullet* could be lethal against tanks.
As there were no antitank guns at the time, a direct hit by a 75 mm or larger shell would have been lethal as well. There was a long way to go before sloped armor and more refined protections.
Little Willie with its tailwheel mounted for tests in December 1915.
The Little Willie, as it appeared after its final modifications, in December 1915. Since the first Lincoln machine trials it was fitted with an extra tail-wheel to enhance steering and for crossing large trenches. This feature was successful and retained for the subsequent Mk.I British tank. The specially designed track system was also considered a success. Unlike the previous design, the longer tracks made it better able to cross all kind of difficult, muddy ground, especially trenches and the removal of the turret added some stability.
Recent photographs taken of the underneath of Little Willie has revealed the remains of green paint. Prior to the establishment of the Tank Museum at Bovington, British Army tank maintenance work shops had the responsibility of looking after this historic tank prototype. After WW1 most British tanks were painted green. The workshops had lots of green paint in stock so Little Willie was painted green. It was only after research in the archives was it repainted its original grey colour and put on display in the Tank Museum.
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.
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.