The US entered the Great War with no tanks of their own – by the end of the war they had designed and built their first tank, collaborated on a leviathan heavy tank with Britain and built their own copy of the French FT. In this video we look at how the US Army hit the ground running and formed two tank corps and built their first tanks.
In recent videos we’ve looked at all of the US Army’s early tanks, here’s a round up:
The tinny 3-ton Ford was the first American designed and built tank. Aiming to use readily available parts and materials it took inspiration from the French Renault FT but was smaller and lacked the FT’s revolutionary turret. The Ford was only lightly armoured and did have the best cross country handling. Check out our full article on the Ford here.
The MkVIII was a truly ‘international’ effort with the US, UK and France all working on the project. The US and UK provided the mechanical components while France provided a factory to assemble the formidable vehicles. The MkVIII wasn’t ready in time to see action during the war but remained in US service into the 1930s. Check out our full article on the MkVIII here.
The US also sought to produce their own licensed version of the French Renault FT, making some slight changes the tank was adopted as the M1917 but despite production being well underway by late 1918, none of the M1917s reached the front. Instead they became the backbone of the US Army’s interwar tank force. One even climbed a mountain!Check out our full article on the M1917 here.
This is the last of our series of videos/articles on the US Tanks of WWI, you can find all episodes here.
The MkVIII Heavy Tank holds the distinction of being the result of the first successful international co-operative tank project. Developed with input from British and American designers and engineers, intended to be equipped with British weapons and an American engine, with parts made in the US and Britain and to be assembled in France – a truly international undertaking. The MkVIII, sometimes referred to as ‘The International’ or ‘Liberty Tank’, owed its basic design to earlier British heavy tanks but a number of important changes were made.
Intended for introduction in 1919, the war ended before the MkVIII could enter service and even before its French factory had been completed. It did, however, see some production and inter-war service providing the heavy tank backbone of the US’ tank force for many years.
The design evolved from work by British Lieutenant G.J Rackham with later input from American engineer Major Herbert Alden. The MkVIII heavy was very much an evolution of the earlier British rhomboid heavy tanks but Rackham and Alden made some important improvements. Chiefly the redesigning of the tank’s sponsons which housed a pair of British 6pdr guns. While the tank was a foot narrower than its predecessors, the new folding sponsons could enabled the tank to be transported more easily by rail and to also, in theory, navigate narrow spaces. Alden patented this feature in December 1918 (US #1366550). Additionally, the commander’s ‘outlook turret’ positioned on top of the tank’s turret, which had vision slits on all four sides, was also retractable. Alden’s sponsons were hinged at the front and mounted on rolling bearings so they could pivot inwards.
The MkVIII directly addressed several shortcomings of earlier British heavy tanks, firstly the engine was insulated in its own compartment to prevent exhaust fumes overwhelming the crew. A new ventilation system was also added with a fan keeping fumes out of the fighting compartment. Secondly, overall visibility was improved with protected vision and revolver slits and the addition of the tank’s commander’s turret.
Another important design change was the move to longer tracks, about 5 inches in length, which required a dozen less links than the MkV. Each of the links was shallowly stamped to increase its strength. In terms of armament the MkVIII was designed as solely ‘male’ – with guns in its sponsons, not machine guns – however, with a raised tower on the tanks roof this provided positions for five machine guns in hemispherical ball mounts. Two more machine guns could be mounted in the tank’s hull doors located behind the sponsons. The ammunition for the 6pdr guns was held in a central ammunition storage box but the sponsons also had shell storage space surrounding the guns themselves.
The 37 ton tank was to be powered by an American V12 aircraft petrol engine manufactured by the Liberty company. Although a cheaper, water-cooled Liberty was eventually used in the American tanks. The British developed a similar 12 cylinder engine from Ricardo. This, in theory, produced 300 horsepower with a top speed of just over 6mph and a range of just under 40 miles. The MkVIII’s engine was moved from the centre of the tank to a separate engine compartment at the rear of the tank. This not only reduced engine heat and fumes in the fighting compartment but also made communication easier. Some sources also suggest that the MkVIII was the first tank to have an electronic intercom system.
The American Preliminary Handbook for the MkVIII listed the tanks as being equipped with 7 ‘Hotchkiss .303-inch machine guns’, these are likely to be Hotchkiss Portative MkI*s popular in British service. In US service, however, the tanks were likely later equipped with the new Browning M1919 Tank Machine Guns. The tank carried 182 rounds of 6pdr ammunition and an additional 26 smoke rounds as well as 21,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition to keep the 7 machine guns fed.The tank’s armour was also increased lightly from the previous MkV, with 16mm of frontal armour and between 10 and 12mm at the sides. Less vulnerable areas had armour 6mm thick.
The American MkVIIIs were initially planned to be manned by an eleven-man crew made up of a driver, commander, two gunners and two loaders to man 6pdrs, four machine gunners and a mechanic. Later crew complements probably dispensed with two of the machine gunners as the US MkVIIIs operated during the inter-war period dispensed with two of the midships machine guns. The British crew was planned to be smaller with 8-men fighting the tank, made up of a driver, commander a pair of gunners and loaders for the main guns and two machine gunners who were tasked with manning the tank’s various machine guns. Impressively the 34 feet long tank also had room for as many as 22 infantry to be transported.
As an allied collaborative project the production of parts was to be a collaborative effort. Britain was to contribute armour plate, structural frame work and armament. The American contribution was to include the automotive parts including the engine, brakes, drive sprockets, gears and transmission.
The French were largely uninterested in British heavy tanks and their primary contribution to the MkVIII project was a factory site near the village of Neuvy-Pailloux, 165 miles south of Paris, in central France. Critically located well away from the fighting on a main rail route north, through Issoudun. Construction of the impressive factory appears to have begun in early 1918, with the framework of seven long production halls and the installation of a powerplant and generators and the building of railway sidings completed before the armistice in November 1918. Production barely got underway in Britain, let alone in France. Contemporary photographs taken in January 1919, by the US Army Signal Corps show the factory with its roof in various stages of completion, its shop floors unfinished and empty and open to the elements. The factory would eventually be completed and used by the French army as an artillery park and later a maintenance depot.
The oringal plan was for the tank parts to be shipped across the channel and the atlantic through France’s western coastal ports to be shipped by rail to Neuvy-Pailloux where they would be assembled into working tanks. It was envisaged that the workforce would be made up of Chinese labourers with British and American foremen and managers.
As many as 3,000 tanks were planned for 1919. The British intended to build 1,450 MkVIIIs of their own use in addition to the 1,550 to be produced for general allied use. The British tank parts were to be manufactured in Manchester, by the various workshops of the Manchester Tanks Association, and in Glasgow, by the North British Locomotive Company. Mass production in Manchester never got underway and the initial British MkVIIIs were built in Glasgow – just 24 are believed to have been built, all but six of these were scrapped almost immediately. The first American tanks were assembled by the Locomobile Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The American-assembled MkVIII completed acceptance trials in the spring of 1919. With the end of the war the US order was reduced from 1,500 to 100. 100 sets of hull components were bought from Britain and assembled with corresponding American parts at the Rock Island Arsenal.
The MkVIII was the last of the British rhomboid heavy tanks. The handful of British MkVIIIs built never entered service but the 100 American tanks along with American built M1917s, MkV Heavies and Renault FTs brought back from France, formed the backbone of the US Tank Corps throughout the early inter-war period. The US MkVIIIs remained in use as training tanks until 1932. Today, just three are believed to survive; two in the US and one in Britain.
Continuing our series looking at US tanks of World War One, in which we have already taken a look at the Ford M1918 3-Ton Tank, in this video/article we will take a look at the M1917 Light Tank.
The US Army entered the Great War with no tanks or experience in armoured warfare. When the American Expeditionary Force’s Tank Corps was formed in early 1918, it was equipped with French and British tanks. With plans to rapidly expand the US Tank Corps with battalions training in the US, France and Britain, a large number of tanks would be needed. The corps trained with the French Renault FT light tank and the British MkV but with French production stretched to capacity they could not hope to provide the US with the tanks it was expected to need for operations during 1919.
As a result the US negotiated with France for a license to produce the FT in the US, commissioned a smaller 3-ton light tank from Ford and entered into an agreement with Britain to build a new heavy tank – the MkVIII. The American-made FTs were designated the Model 1917 6-ton light tank. 4,400 were ordered, with deliveries to begin in April 1918. The Ordnance Department finalised the M1917s design and contracted a number of private companies to build the tanks.
Delays in production, however, meant that the first American tanks were completed in October 1918, and none of the M1917s reached the Western Front before the war ended. As a result, the primary US tank of the war was the original French Renault FT, revolutionary for its turret which could rotate 360-degrees and its rear-mounted engine. It was cheaper to manufacture than the heavier British tanks and could be transported by lorries behind the lines. The FT equipped the 1st Provisional Tank Brigade, what would become the 304th Tank Brigade, commanded by Lt. Colonel George S. Patton. The American FT’s saw action for the in September 1918, at the Battle of St. Mihiel.
144 US FT’s took part in the battle and both the tanks and crews performed well. The Five of Hearts, a 37mm-armed FT with the 344th Tank Battalion took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and while making an isolated attack on German positions in support of bogged down US Infantry, the tank was immobilised and its gun mantle jammed by enemy small arms fire. The tank’s commander Sergeant Arthur Snyder recalled:
“My wounded driver kept filling pistol clips and I produced as much fire as possible with our pistols and the crippled 37mm. I paid more attention to the volume of fire than its accuracy for I fear the enemy would close in if the volume diminished. Three machine guns were set up at very close range, but just out of range of our piece with its limited elevation. The fragmentation of our shells did afford some protection but I could not train this fire on the German field piece. The constant hammering of these machine guns at close range was terrific. The hinges on the doors could not stand up under it for long, but it was the mushroom ventilator on top of the turret that gave way. I was hit in the back of my head with fragments of it and bullet splinters.”
Luckily for Snyder the German infantry made no attempt to rush the tank, content to pepper it from a distance, and they quickly retreated when infantry from the 16th Infantry arrived.
In terms of protection Snyder felt that “the armor plate on those old French Renaults was good, but when you came to close quarters the splinters from bullets hitting around the vision slits did considerable damage.” Two of Snyder’s drivers were badly wounded one by bullet splash splinters and the other in the throat.
The M1917 was manufactured by the Van Dorn Iron Works, the Maxwell Motor Co., and the C.L. Best Co. Of the original wartime order for over 4,000 tanks, in total just 952 M1917s were produced. 375 of these are believed to have been equipped with 37mm M1916 cannons, while 526 armed with Marlin M1917 tank machine guns. The remaining 50 were outfitted as unarmed signal tanks.
The M1917 has a number of small differences from the FT. Its exhaust is located on left rather than right side of the tank. A new US-designed gun mount and mantlet was used. Solid steel idler wheels at the front of the tank rather than the spoked type used by the French. Additional vision slits for the driver were added and a bulkhead sectioned off the engine from the cab. Like their French cousins the M1917 was manned by a two-man crew, the driver and the commander who also acted as loader and gunner.
A different, American-made, engine – a water-cooled 4 cylinder engine built by the Buda Engine company was used. Developing 42 horsepower, it had more torque than its French counterpart but was no faster, with a top speed of between just 6 – 8 miles per hour. The tank weighed just over 7 US tons and was 16.5 feet long and 7ft 7” tall. Its armour was 0.25″ to 0.6″ (6.35mm to 15.25mm) thick – slightly thinner than its French counterpart. The majority of the tanks were armed with machine guns, using the .30 calibre M1917 Marlin tank machine gun, rather than the French Hotchkiss. The ‘male’ or cannon armed tanks had a 37mm gun and carried more than 230 shells for the gun. The Marlin was later supplanted by the early iteration of the M1919 Browning tank machine gun. 50 command and signals tanks were also built, these unarmed tanks were similar to the French TSF (télégraphie sans fil) and fitted with a wireless radio.
Perhaps the M1917s most impressive feat stemmed from a publicity stunt in April 1919, when a M1917 climbed Pikes Peak, a mountain in Colorado. At the time the road up Pikes Peak was said to be the ‘World’s Highest Motor Drive’, a single tank was driven up the mountain as part of fund raising efforts for the fifth, and final, round of Liberty Bond sales, which hoped to raise $4.5 billion from the sale of government bonds. We’ll have a separate looking at this exploit at a later date!
None of the M1917s reached the frontline but many were used a props for selling war bonds – in this photo dated April 1918, a platoon of M1917s is seen after they arrived at Camp Meritt by train, they are about to be painted up in camouflage for a Victory Loan parade in New York.
After the war the M1917, along with just over 200 French-made FTs brought back from France, formed the backbone of the US Tank Corps. In these photos we can see several tanks taking part in a mock-battle with supporting infantry at Camp Meade in May 1919. This photo show men learning to service their vehicles at Camp Meade, in December 1919.
But by 1921, the Corps had lost its independence and been all but disbanded with the Infantry given control of America’s tank force. A handful of the M1917s were deployed briefly overseas with the USMC, during the 1920s, but the M1917 was resigned to training as it became increasingly obsolete. They were finally removed from service in the mid-1930s. When World War Two broke out the remaining M1917s were sold to Canada and were reportedly used to help train the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps before many of them were finally scrapped.
Footage courtesy of the US National Archives (source)
Camp Colt to Desert Storm: The History of U.S. Armored Forces, G.F. Hofmann & D.A. Starry (1999) Tanks: 100 Years of Evolution, R. Ogorkiewicz (2015)
Light Tank M1917, Tank Encylopedia, C. Moore, (source)
The Saga of the Five of Hearts, Armor, July-Aug. 1988, Maj. Gen. W.R. Kraft Jr. (source)