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Hobart’s Funnies: World War 2 Specialist Armoured Fighting Vehicles and Allied “Secret Weapons”

The Allies used them for the first time during the landings in Normandy: the Duplex Drive Tanks. Duplex drives weren’t traditional armoured fighting vehicles. This particular kind of tank was a Sherman tank, tweaked to float on water thanks to a canvas flotation screen around the vehicle. Thanks to two propellers the tank engine was able to drive in the water. Because of its peculiar… characteristics and abilities, the DD tank was nicknamed the “Donald Duck.” It’s pretty spectacular, to be honest. The amphibious tank played a crucial role in the landings on the beaches of Normandy. Soldiers basically built their Sherman tank into a floating craft, making it much easier to land on shores and to cover infantry landing among the vehicles. There was one man that stood at the helm of developing these Donald Ducks. And they certainly weren’t his only inventions eagerly utilised by the Allies during the Second World War.

DD Tank

Gen. Percy Hobart

General Percy Hobart specifically designed these floating tanks for Operation Overlord, the landings on Normandy in June 1944. They supported the troops storming the beaches of Normandy, vulnerable to German machine-gun fire and artillery shelling. 

During the landings on the beaches of Normandy, the most curious vehicles saw the light of day. Together with his specialist 79th Armoured Division, General Hobart took part in the preparations for D-Day. Hobart developed more unusual-looking specialist armoured fighting vehicles. The Duplex Drive Tank was just a part of a much larger contingent of special vehicles. Because of their looks, these vehicles were referred to as “Hobart’s Funnies.”

Before we get to about a dozen of Hobart’s “Funnies”, I’ll explain a bit about the man behind these curious vehicles. Hobart, nicknamed Hobo, was a British Major General and brother-in-law of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He married Hobart’s sister, Elizabeth. Born in Naini Tal, India, he studied at Clifton College and at the age of 19 graduated from the Woolwich Royal Military Academy. Following his graduation, he joined the Corps of Royal Engineers, commonly known as the Sappers, and was stationed in India. Their task was to provide military engineering and other technical support to the British Armed Forces. And, well, Hobart certainly had some unique and creative ideas. But as we’ll see that certainly didn’t always serve him well and his superiors weren’t too impressed with his imagination. 

General Percy “Hobo” Hobart (1885-1957)

During the First World War, he fought both in France with the 1st Bengal Sappers and the Middle East, current-day Iraq. He held multiple positions after the war ended, steadily rising through the ranks. He ended the war as a temporary Major, and by December 1937 he was a Major General. Within this capacity, he was tasked with reforming and training the newly established Mobile Force. Consisting of four armoured regiments, the Force was redesignated the 7th Armoured Division during the Second World War, also known as the Desert Rats. 

But initially, Hobart wasn’t even present, or even in service when the Division saw action in North Africa for the first time. The Army forced him to retire in 1940; sources indicate this was because of his unusual convictions about mechanised warfare and its potential and possibilities. Basically, Hobart’s superiors considered him a bit of a nuisance and antagonistic character. Ironically, Hart’s pre-war writings greatly influenced German strategies regarding mechanised warfare. Yet as the war continued, Hobart’s unusual ideas began to seem like a genuine necessity to some British commanders. 

A wake-up call to the British command that an amphibious landing on the French coast would be a meat grinder without adequate armoured support came in August 1942. It followed the disastrous Dieppe Raid. Basically, the raid was an amphibious landing with massive Allied casualties. In retrospect, the British commanders concluded that, among other things, due to the lack of reliable armoured support, within ten hours of the beginning of the raid, over sixty percent of all soldiers that landed near the German-occupied French port of Dieppe, were either killed, wounded or captured. As such, the British decided to develop tanks that could reach the coast shore by themselves, instead of having them dropped off by landing vessels. After the British military historian and theorist B.H. Lidell-Hart advocated for Hobart’s cause to Winston Churchill, he, in turn, reinstated him. 

Hobart (left) with Montgomery (3rd from right)

Reentering service, Hobart became the commander of an Armoured Division. Now, it wasn’t like Hobart suddenly started designing a dozen of his funnies in the remaining years of the war. Instead, most of his Funnies’ plans already existed thanks to developments during, or right after the First World War. Concept plans for amphibian tanks, or tanks with ploughs or rake-like structures to neutralise mines already existed. When he rejoined service, Hobart simply began collecting, expanding and integrating these curious vehicles in order for them to become operational properly… and effective. 

The Duplex Drive Tank

We’ve already had a look at the Donald Duck, or Duplex Drive Tank. The Hungarian-born Miklós Straussler created the initial designs, which eventually allowed for the creation of the DD-tank. It is undoubtedly the most famous Funnie, and perhaps you recognised it when I introduced the swimming vehicle in this video. Basically, an American Sherman M4 Tank rotated its turret 180 degrees upon which the tank’s crew inflated the foldable floatation screen surrounding the tank. The rotating of the turret was necessary to maintain balance in the water.

As the footage shows after inflating the canvas, the four ‘walls’, if you will, remained above the surface of the water. Thirty-six vertical inflatable rubber ribs held it up. Thanks to its two propellers, its top speed was around seven kilometres per hour, so approximately the same as a marching soldier. Except it was in the water. And it was a heavy floating tank. 

The Allies occasionally used the British Mark III Valentine tank as a DD-tank as well. However, the tank was much less fitted for it in comparison to the Sherman. Aside from landings on the Italian beaches, the Valentine tank was mainly used during training missions. 

And its counterpart, the Sherman, certainly landed on Normandy. To be more specific: the DD-tanks were destined for Omaha Beach, and received the brunt of the fire. In total, 32 DD-tanks were supposed to sail onto the shores from approximately five kilometres off the coast. For these improvised sailing vessels, each weighing between 30 and 38 tonnes… well, it was quite the distance. Waves reached close to two metres in height, and of course, the tanks suffered heavy artillery and anti-tank gun attacks. 

DD Tanks on Utah beach

Precisely because of the expected resistance, the DD-tanks’ crews were outfitted with Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus, which was initially invented as an emergency escape apparatus for submarine crews. Thirty of the 32 tank crews ended up using the apparatus, not always successfully. Merely two DD-tanks managed to reach Omaha beach. 

Elsewhere in October 1944, during the Battle of the Schelde in northern Belgium and the Netherlands, aside from the Buffalo amphibious vehicles, several DD-tanks actually managed to get to shore after travelling over double the distance at Omaha Beach, 11 kilometres, with relative ease. Multiple other funnies saw action during D-Day though, many of them looking like a stroke of genius had devised them… Or a stroke of madness.

Hobart’s other Funnies

A so-called Double Onion was a tank with a steel fence able to position explosives onto a bunker. As you can see on the photograph, the Double Onion placed explosives at a decent height, up to twelve meters. It made the vehicle great for putting a dent in the outer defences of bunkers or chipping away at the strength of walls. 

Crabs were M4 Sherman Tanks fitted with a rotating flail consisting of a heavy metal chain, able to clear paths straight through minefields. The first time Crabs were used, they were put on Matilda tanks during the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa. But soon the Sherman M4 became the tank of choice. An unforeseen, but very welcome effect was that the flails could also easily cut through barbed wire. This was a crucial asset as after the Atlantikwall was breached Allied soldiers often ran into massive barbed wire obstacles put up by the Germans. 

During the Battle of Overloon in the Netherlands, the British used Crabs to make their way through rivers and minefields. Meanwhile, the Crabs were happy with Churchill tanks equipped with fascines, allowing them to cross the muddy landscape. 

Fascines were used during the First World War as well. Fascines were bundles of wood or other material with the purpose to allow vehicles to cross through rugged territory. It could merely be wet, muddy or uneven territory. But fascines also were very welcome against anti-tank ditches. Especially during rainy autumn, turning lands into marshes, these were very useful. In the photograph you’re seeing, taken in 1943, a Churchill tank carrying a fascine crosses a ditch using one in the process. It basically shows the entire way fascines were utilised. 

A Canal Defence Light
A Churchill AVRE, carrying a fascine, crosses a ditch using an already deployed fascine, (1943)

The Canal Defence Light generally was a modified British Matilda or American M3 Grant Lee Tank with a tower fitted with an intense stroboscopic carbon-arc light. It could send out blinding laser beams with such strength that the CDL was even effective during the daytime. Still, it rarely saw action during the war and even among Hobart’s funnies it was a bit of the odd one out. This is one of the Funnies that did not see action during D-Day, although it was used in November that year during Operation Clipper. 

One of the most spectacular vehicles must have been the tanks outfitted with a flamethrower. These so-called Crocodiles had their machinegun exchanged for a flamethrower situated in the operator’s cabin. An armoured container located within the tank contained between 500 and 1800 litres of fuel. Using strong pressure, the flamethrower could emit 90 bursts of fire a second, reaching up to 130 metres in the distance. 

AVRE with a “bobbin”

AVRE’s , short for Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers, were a series of armoured military engineering vehicles. They were modified to be able to launch heavy mortars, ‘flying dustbins’, 18 kilo heavy mortars, onto enemy positions such as bunkers. The turret of a Churchill tank was removed and in its place came a 290 mm petard spigot mortar. These vehicles were ideal for the carrying of equipment as well, and were a welcome way to transport the aforementioned fascines. Another purpose for it was the so-called Churchill AVRE Bobbin. This vehicle carried a bit more of an advanced fascine, carrying a canvas roll that it was able to roll out over soggy ground so that itself, and other vehicles could safely cross the difficult terrain. 

Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicles, or… Well BARV for short, were vehicles used for amphibious landings. During the landings in Normandy, about five dozen of these modified M4A2 Sherman tanks saw action. Thanks to the bottom side of the vehicle being made waterproof, it served as a rescuer of other vehicles in the sea or on the beach. It was also able to push stranded vehicles back in the sea. The vehicles used during D-Day were able to operate in up to over 2.5 metres deep water. Among its crew was a professional diver whose task was to secure the tow rope to a stranded vehicle to recover it. 

Sherman BARV tows a disabled truck and its load off the beach at Normandy, 14 June 1944

A bit more forgotten and perhaps worthy of its own video entirely is the Allied Operation Dragoon. Hobart’s Funnies played a crucial role during that operation. In August 1944 there was a landing operation in Provence, southern France. The already weakened German forces were swiftly pushed back and important French port cities were rapidly captured. 

Crossing the Rhine

Hobart’s Funnies ended up playing a crucial role in the European battle theatre until after the Allies crossed the Rhine river. Now, during that crossing of the Rhine river, the Allies ran into quite some trouble as the retreating Germans blew up every bridge they used. There was one bridge at Remagen, however, that they were too late to blow up. The Battle of Remagen was daring and spectacular, crucial in securing a passage for Allied Armoured Divisions into the German heartlands. If you want to know more about it, there should be an end-card for you to click on-screen any minute now. 

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Jeff Bezos and the History of Amazon

Nowadays, Amazon is nearly everywhere. If you haven’t ordered a product through their services, you certainly have heard of them. The corporation is steadily in the top three of corporations with the highest market capitalisation since 2018, and since 2017 its owner, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world. Bezos established Amazon in 1995 and initially operated the e-commerce store from his garage. So it’s not just quite an interesting company to look at and see how it managed to take over the United States and is undoubtedly expanding internationally, slowly taking over the world. But who is the man behind Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and what drives him?

How did Amazon start?

Jeff Bezos was born as Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen on the 12th of January 1964 to a 17-year-old mom and a father that abandoned the mother and child soon after Jeff’s birth. There barely is anything known about Jeff’s biological father. When Jeff was four years old, his mother married Mike Bezos, a refugee from Cuba that managed to obtain a scholarship to go to college in Albuquerque. After he met Jeff’s mother, he got a job as an engineer at Exxon and officially adopted young Jeff, whose name changed to Bezos. During his childhood, Jeff was exceptionally gifted, fascinated if not obsessed with space travel and technology which led to him winning multiple science prizes during highschool. In 1986 he graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University with a bachelor in electrical engineering and computer science. He then worked a variety of jobs at fintech companies and the banking industry, only to eventually become senior vice-president of D.E. Shaw & co, a multinational investment management firm at the age of 30. 

During the early ‘90s, Jeff Bezos still worked as a hedge fund manager. But during that time Bezos already saw the potential of the internet and figured he’d regret it if he didn’t jump in. After reading a report that predicted the buying and selling of products online would increase drastically, he listed 20 products he thought were promising for the internet market. After some deliberation, he shortened the list to five: CDs, hardware, software, videos and books. Eventually, he decided just to sell books: there was much demand for them, they were relatively cheap to stock up, and there are a plethora of titles available. Bezos figured it’s the ideal product for the internet. In July 1995 he started the website Amazon.com, which he ran from the garage of his home.

The name Amazon wasn’t the first name Bezos decided upon by the way. Initially, Bezos named the company Cadabra, but after his lawyer mistook it for the word cadaver, Bezos changed it to Relentless. But Relentless too had some negative associations. Bezos said that he used a dictionary to eventually decide on Amazon because it had an exotic and different ring to it. And it refers to the largest river in the world, something that’s fitting for the now-largest company. According to the General Manager of Amazon’s Amazonsmile program, Ian McAllister, the first product ever ordered on Amazon was Douglas Hofstadter’s book “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought.” At that time nobody expected that this order was the first of many billions. 

It didn’t take long for Amazon to become a booming internet business. Bezos’s garage rapidly filled up with buzzing servers to keep everything running smoothly. During the first months, Amazon sold books in 50 US states and 45 countries worldwide, with around 20.000 USD revenue weekly. It adopted the slogan ‘Earth’s biggest bookstore’ and went public on the NASDAQ on May 15 1997. Three million stocks were listed at 18 dollars each, with Amazon reaching a revenue of 32 million dollars the year before. According to the Investopedia, if you invested 10.000 USD in 1997, that same amount of shares would  be worth more than 12 million dollars as of May this year.

As the late ‘90s arrived, Amazon continuously expanded its inventory. Besides books, it started selling films, games, electronics, software, toys and much more in its online store. The dotcom bubble crashed in the early 200s. Although Amazon continued to enjoy the confidence of its investors, a lot of its competition was killed off. If anything, the dotcom bubble helped Amazon gain a larger market monopoly. 

Over the years, Amazon started to focus itself more on technology. Nowadays, Amazon is often listed among other large tech-companies, that just happens to be in retail as well. There’s a clear reason why it started to focus more on technology. As the webshop kept improving over the years, it realised the digital infrastructure the shop was developing and using was a goldmine. Nowadays an overabundance of webshops exist and the digital infrastructure of these webshops generally is sound. But many e-commerce comforts we nowadays take for granted were created by Amazon. Because of its specialisation and pioneering in many digital aspects, in order to keep a platform its size running smoothly, it could sell systems for data analysis, storage and networks to other companies. Others were very eager to buy these systems because it would save them a lot of money if they didn’t have to invest in developing them themselves. This is how Amazon became the market leader in so-called cloud computing, selling computer systems through the internet. 

And there are pretty big names that run on Amazon-technology. Even its competitors use it: Netflix uses it even though Amazon competes with the platform through Prime Video. Many online e-commerce stores use it as well. Its cloud computing share in 2019 was about 35 billion dollars. In total, Amazon’s revenue in 2019 was near 1000 billion dollars, a tenfold increase from the 100 billion dollars of 2015. By June 2017 Amazon stocks reached a 1000 dollar value, with the entire company valued at 480 billion dollars. As of April 2020, Amazon is worth 1.14 trillion dollars.

Even though they provide cloud computing to their competitors, they have certain ways of dealing with competition. One such example is Whole Foods, an American supermarket chain that Bezos acquired in 2017 for a record sum of around 13.7 billion dollars. Amazon is large to the extent that in some markets disruption occurs: the market cannot handle its presence and bleeds out all other stores in that sector. The Kindle and e-books are out-competing small bookstores, for example. Amazon has threatened, at one time or another, nearly every niche in the small retail sector. 

Those stories are a sign on the wall that it isn’t a story that’s just over roses. At times, Amazon bit off more than it could chew, or perhaps more than its consumers could chew. Because there were misses as well, pretty big ones at that. In 2014 Amazon tried to release the fire phone, a competitor of android- and iPhones. Yet the phone didn’t sell at all and was pulled from sales within one year. Amazon suffered 170 million dollars in losses. The grocery service Amazon Fresh wasn’t a success either and has thrown in the towel in most areas it operated in. 

CEO Bezos

Because of the unprecedented growth of Amazon, Jeff Bezos managed to become the richest man in the world on July 27 2017. A record he didn’t even manage to hold for a day because he lost it again when the stock price of Amazon dropped a little, and Bill Gates, Microsoft’s CEO, overtook him. Three months later on the October 27, Bezos once again overtook Gates and this time for a long while. At least, as of today he still holds the number one spot. 

As an employer, Bezos is notorious for his inflammable character and sarcastic response when he doesn’t like something. Apparently, he hired a leadership coach that tries to keep him in check and make him a better employer. Brad Stone, a tech journalist that wrote the book ‘The Secrets of Bezos’ writes about an anecdote where Bezos reprimanded some employees, telling them they were stupid and to ‘not return until they knew what they were doing’. As he was marching out, angrily, he suddenly stopped in his tracks, seemed to realise what he did, turned around and said ‘but good work, everybody’. 

In addition, the working conditions of Amazon have been under scrutiny for a long time. The news often features items about it because of specific issues with its workforce. US distribution centres are notorious for poor working conditions where the pace of work is constantly monitored and even toilet breaks are timed. Following the BBC documentary ‘The Truth Behind a Click,’ it became evident that in the UK employees had to work 60 hour weeks and sleep in tents because Amazon did everything they could to maximise profits. But the distribution centre of Amazon in Germany had an even weirder scandal when it turned out guards keeping an eye on the workers turned out to be criminal neo-Nazis. 

At any rate, Amazon is notorious for its aversion to trade unions. Some other curious facts that have surfaced is that Amazon has patents on a wristband that tracks the movement of its employee’s hands when packing boxes and a so-called worker’s cage. This supposedly was designed to protect the workers in warehouses They scrapped the worker’s cage after public outcry against the idea. In 2018 the average wage Amazon employees received wasn’t enough to reach the most basic standard of living. Because of it, Bernie Sanders proposed the Stop Bad Employers By Zeroing Out Subsidies Act. Abbreviated, this spelt Stop Bezos and was a law proposal to try and force companies such as Amazon to pay their employees better wages. The fact, so many of its employees, are on food stamps is rather criminal, especially in a country such as the United States. In 2018 Amazon announced it would pay all its employees a 15$/hour minimum wage. So to their credit, they did recognise the criticism, 15$ is more than double the federal minimum wage. It is also lobbying Washington to increase the federal minimum wage. 

Other Ventures

Bezos doesn’t just stick to Amazon as a businessman. He owns different companies, as well. Among them is Blue Origin. This company focuses on commercial space travel and is a direct competitor to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Basically, both companies are competing about who can establish the first commercial space travel, a bit like the United States and the Soviet Union had their space race during the Cold War. In late 2015 Bezos managed to be the first to send a reusable rocket into space and return it to earth in one piece. Because the rocket was reusable, the possibility of space travel came closer: it would have been too expensive to build a rocket for each trip. Although Blue Origin initially said the first passengers would travel into outer space in 2019, no such commercial flight has yet happened. In May 2019 Bezos announced that Blue Origin was planning on the launch of a moon lander named Blue Moon, which should be ready by 2024. 

Besides space travel, Bezos also dabbled in media. He bought the Washington Post in 2013. The paper was in financial trouble and Bezos managed to acquire it for 250 million dollars. Ever since there have been accusations that he tries to steer the content of the newspaper a particular direction, although the editor in chief and Bezos himself strongly deny that. Because Bezos introduced software that gave more options to receive payment for articles, the paper finally became profitable again. Amazon also owns Alexa Internet and the Internet Movie Database. I’ve already touched upon the acquisition of Whole Foods Market. With its 460 stores throughout the US, Canada and the UK it had annual revenue of 16 billion dollars in 2016. Following Amazon’s acquisition, the prices of some of the best selling products were lowered. In 2018 Amazon acquired the online pharmacy PillPack for 753 million dollars.

All in all, taking into account the shady side of Amazon, there is no denying that Bezos managed to establish an incredible global company from, quite literally, his garage. And only time will tell how that will translate to the future, with its wealth in overdrive.

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The First Tanks in History

Have you ever heard of Gunther Adolf Burstyn? Probably not. He isn’t that well known, but this Austrian inventor, technician and officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, was quite the pioneer when it came to tanks. Basically, in 1911 he finished the design of his first battle-ready tank. He named it a motorgeschütz, which translates to as much as motor-gun. Alright, so the following photograph shows a model of the motorgeschütz. 

Gunther Adolf Burstyn (1879-1945)

As you can see it has a rotating turret and, well, frankly, it looks pretty advanced. Ironically, Burstyn’s design was more advanced than many prototype tanks that would be developed during the First World War, which broke out three years later. And that’s what makes this story so curious: both Austria-Hungary and the German empire rejected his designs, refusing to produce a prototype. There was another man, an Australian engineer and inventor, Lancelot de Mole. He wrote to the British authorities several times before and during the First World War, believing his invention, a caterpillar-track driven vehicle, could be useful in combat. Yet due to bureaucratic errors, his idea too was forgotten, and never came to fruition. 

The Motorgeschütz

But, well, the idea of ‘land ships’, advanced by Winston Churchill, ended up making quite a difference in several battles of the first world war. At the end of 1914, the Western front had come to a standstill, and trench warfare became the norm. All powers were hastily searching for technological advantages over their enemy. Step by step, the idea of assembling rotating turrets onto armoured vehicles, supported by undercarriages with a caterpillar-like construction was conceived: the tank, slowly but surely, was born. The history of the tank, and the first usage of tanks, or, well, ‘landships’, signalled the beginning of a new era of warfare.

Background

So, the idea of a “tank” as we know it today probably goes back a bit further than most people expect. The development of the ‘invulnerable, sealed Warmachine’ was originally the idea of Leonardo Da Vinci, living in the 15th century. But it only became a potential reality once the internal combustion engine was developed. The British were a bit short-sighted in the development and usage of tanks during the First World War. The fact that the development of the tank was realised in the first place, even though there was much opposition within Britain, was thanks to colonel Ernest Swinton. Swinton attempted to unite the advantages of tractors with armoured vehicles. He shared his ideas with Winston Churchill, who at that time was First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill was fond of this idea and encouraged the development of tanks, then referred to as His Majesty’s Landships, funding it with admiralty funds. After all, the ministry of war made it known they weren’t interested in the development of these ‘landships’. 

Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch

Designing what would become known as the tank wasn’t wholly a revolutionary idea. Before the First World War, the military of various countries had advocated the development of armoured vehicles as man-power was being replaced by innovations in the technical and chemical sector. Think of poison gas and the maxim gun. We’ve already touched upon Gunther Burstyn and his sketches for a tank. In the eighteenth century, the forerunners of caterpillar tracks had been anticipated by Richard Edgeworth, but while he played around with the idea for decades, he never developed it. Sixty years before the First World War, during the Crimean war, tractors supported by dreadnaught wheels and steam-engines were used by warring parties, but that was about it. The American Frederick Simms created a ‘motor-war car’ model in 1899, using a tractor on caterpillar tracks that the American Holt Company built 15 years earlier. Still, no country saw any use in it as a serious weapon for war.

There were massive costs attached to the development of actually usable tanks and the need for them wasn’t that obvious until the bloodshed and carnage of the First World War. 

A Holt-tractor

Yet because there was no precedent on what type of armoured vehicle was the most efficient to develop, the initial stages of tank development were very experimental. With the support of Churchill, an opted idea was to saw open a submarine and to construct caterpillar-tracks under it. An entire platoon of officers could, in one go, breakthrough enemy lines. Another idea could be compared to a motorised medieval siege-tower. Fifteen metres in height, thirty metres in length and three massive wheels, with over 300 tonnes of weight. These ideas do show something different, besides their absurdity in hindsight: the first tank relied on transporting manpower, and not so much being the dominant firepower force we have come to know it as. There were multiple ideas and as absurd as these ideas seem, all of them contributed to the creation of something that eventually did work. That’s the way it often goes in life; one has to fail a couple of times in order to discover what does work.

Okay, so basically two dominant trains of thought existed about the development of tanks. One was concerned with the movement of soldiers, devising a machine that could safely transport entire platoons. And the other was concerned with designing something that had firepower and was mobile, in order to support and cover soldiers. Eventually, the French tested the idea of placing turrets onto armoured vehicles backed by undercarriages with caterpillar tracks. Meanwhile, the Russians developed the so-called Tsar Tank… a… well a tricycle monstrosity that never saw combat simply because of the abundance of design flaws. 

The Tsar Tank

On the western front, an actual working landship was coming closer, though the British designs didn’t have a rotatable turret yet. The first tank to have one was the French Renault FT tank. The French were designing their own type of tanks at the same time as the British, though the countries didn’t share their intelligence. Under the supervision of general Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne, Renault developed one of the first prototype tanks as they would become known to man. This tank was finished in 1917, and was preceded by two other tanks: the Schneider CA1 and Saint-Chamond. The Schneider was France’s first developed tank, designed to traverse barbed wire obstacles. The Saint-Chamond was initially created thanks to commercial competition with the makers of the Schneider. Both designs struggled with their own malfunctions, inadequacies, and honestly, their use was more-or-less a disappointment. They couldn’t cross trenches, among other things. The development of the British “landship” predated the development of the Renault tank, and funnily enough, under supervision of the British navy instead of the army.

The Navy builds a landship for infantry.

The Schneider CA1

The British navy was building a landship that would be used by the army. The army, however, didn’t ask for it and didn’t do anything to aid the development of this landship. The reason why the navy was building a landship, was because Winston Churchill, as would become characteristic for large parts of his career, was dead set on his goal and wouldn’t listen to anyone telling him he was wasting his time and money. Churchill, however, was dismissed in 1916, and after his dismissal, the army slowly started getting involved in the development of the tank. The navy delivered the designs and eventually, the military took over and financed the production. The War Office regulated the entire project, and it was agreed upon that, instead of putting the focus on moving soldiers, developing mobile firepower would be the primary focus.

The first serious British tank-design was named Little Willie. It was a square, steel box supported by a caterpillar undercarriage. It looked like a tank, but the main downside was that it was too short, causing instability because the length-height ratio wasn’t correct. Little Willie wouldn’t manage to pass the trenches and never saw combat because of that. After all, the main task of these vehicles was to be able to cross over the one-and-a-half metre trenches. Still, engineers made significant improvements towards the first usable tank during its development. 

Little Willie

Lieutenant Walter Gordon Wilson, an officer of the Armoured Car Division, figured that supporting an entire vehicle with tracks around its main body, instead of just having an undercarriage with caterpillar tracks, was the way to go. By having the whole body of the vehicle… “circumferenced” with tracks, it would be able to climb gaps and trenches without falling into it. Mark-1, or the HMLS Centipede, or… Mother was born, albeit in theory, as the brainstorming up until this point had taken eleven months. Four men operated the Mark-1, and once the prototype was developed in January 1916. It was showcased to the military high command and King George V. Minister of War Lord Horatio Kitchener remarked: “It is a pretty mechanical toy, but without serious military value”. 

The First Order of Tanks

The British Mark-I

Regardless of Kitchener’s criticism, in February the first 100 tanks were ordered. Time, or rather, the lack thereof, was crucial in the development of the tank. Time pressure was enormous as the First World War kept waging on, and by the end of February, the Germans launched their Verdun offensive. Extensive testing and improvement of the Mark-1 wasn’t an option due to the pressure of time. But because the entire project was a secret, the British didn’t want to lose their element of surprise by intelligence about the project leaking to the Germans. Eventually, on September 15th 1916, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Douglas Haig, couldn’t resist any longer. He sent several Mark-1s into action at Flers, during the Battle of the Somme. In reality, he sent in too few, and the tanks weren’t improved and tweaked to the extent of forcing a breakthrough. The element of surprise was now gone. The Germans, realising these tanks could become an incredible danger to them, started to develop weaponry to counter tanks rapidly.

Within a few months, the Mauser T-gewehr, an anti-tank rifle appeared on the German side, ready to take on these landships. The introduction of tanks on the Western front was combined with psychological warfare from the side of the British. They rolled out their first series of so-called male tanks. These were tanks with a six-pounder naval gun. Their serial number started at 701, whereas the female tanks, equipped with multiple machine guns instead of naval guns, started numbering at 501. The British army did this to keep up the facade of an entire armada of tanks that could potentially overrun the German lines.

Of course, the story of the development of the Mark-1 and using the first tanks in combat is an incredible tale. A technologically supreme bulwark of a weapon was developed in a short time, and it turned the tide of the war. Yet, after production, the development of the tank was lost in the bureaucratic nightmare that followed suit once the success of the tank became prevalent. Still, tanks gained considerable achievements for the British during the war. On November 20th 1917, at the battle of Cambrai, tanks were utilised and broke through the Hindenburg line. Seven months beforehand, at the Battle of the Somme, a couple of tanks were put into action and, supported by six divisions, demolished the barbed wire fences put up and rolled over the German trenches. The British captured 10.000 German Prisoners of War and 200 cannons that day. It was an uncommon success, and the only time during the entire war the bells rang in London to celebrate the victory.

Aftermath

Mark IV

By 1918 the Mark-4 was developed and came into action. It was a much-improved version of the Mark-1 from two years previous. The tank was resistant to anti-tank ammunition and could be operated by one person, instead of four, as was the case in the Mark-1. The French had developed their own Renault tank with a rotating turret on top and even the Germans managed to construct their own A-7-V. This A7V, basically a square steel box, was the only tank produced by Germany during the war to be used in combat. The German high command focused more on anti-tank weaponry.

And to end on a positive note, though Churchill was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, Prime Minister David Lloyd George remarked, after the news of the successes of tanks reached England: “It is really to Mr Winston Churchill that the credit is due more than to anyone else. He took up with enthusiasm the idea of making them a long time ago, and he met with many difficulties.”

It would be characteristic of Churchill’s entire career that he would always follow his own path, against odds, but that is a story for another time, a very fascinating one might I add. v

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History of Barbed Wire

During the twentieth century, barbed wire became the symbol of war, death, destruction and human suffering. We all know the imagery from the First World War, the no-mans-land littered with barbed wire and bodies hanging in it. But it didn’t just remain in the First World War, after all, barbed wire is insanely effective and cost-efficient. During the Second World War, the Germans eagerly used it for concentration camps, and after the war, the iron curtain and the primitive version of the Berlin wall consisted of barbed wire. 

And it is still used to protect borders and to imprison dangers to society even today. But the invention of this symbol of war wasn’t out of any military necessity. During the late 19th century a businessman and cattle-rancher from the United States wanted to keep his cattle in a particular area and did some experimenting. Little did he know his invention would not just change his personal fortune, but the history of the United States and the entire world. His invention brought an end to the Wild West, and greatly influenced the way warfare was conducted in the century afterwards. There is a reason why Native Americans referred to barbed wire as the ‘Devil’s rope.’

Early versions

Barbed wire was invented in 1874 by the American businessman and rancher Joseph Farwell Glidden. It is the type of barbed wire we still know today, robust, sturdy and cost-efficient. It’s effective in its simplicity: two steel wires wrapped along with barbs at regular intervals. Glidden initially invented it as a way to enclose cattle on massive American ranches and to mark private property. 

Before we get to Glidden’s version of barbed wire we know today, I want to take a quick look at its earlier versions. 

Because in 1860 Léonce Eugène Grassin-Baledan, a French inventor received a patent for his version of barbed wire. He created a form that was used to protect trees against wildlife and animals. It is said this version did what it was meant to do, but it was challenging to produce and use on a large scale. Farmers and ranchers didn’t necessarily see a use for it yet. Seven years later Lucien B. Smith obtained a patent on his version of barbed wire, which he named “thorny wire”,  although that too didn’t see any mass-production or use. According to a Popular Science article, between 1867 and 1874 over 200 different patents for “spiked fencing” were processed. There were variations in the design; some had alternating spikes or wood with studded tips. But all of these types of barbed wire were still made by hand, thus making it inefficient for mass production.

Now, as for Joseph Glidden, his success was in part thanks to the favourable circumstances. His timing was perfect and his product was better than that of his competitors because it could be mechanically-produced. As for the timing, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act opened up millions of acres. Any adult could apply and claim 160 hectares if they were willing to settle on, and farm the land. But because of the rough conditions, there was a lack of trees, and wooden fences weren’t that efficient to close off land. 

In the little American town of Dekalb in Illinois, Glidden purchased 243 hectares of ground where he wanted to establish a cattle ranch. It was challenging to keep the cattle in the enclosed area; the story goes that the cattle regularly broke out, only to start grazing in the vegetable garden his wife tended to. After some brainstorming Joseph thought of a solution: he bought multiple rolls of iron wire. He then used a coffee mill to wrap the wire tightly around barbs, and used a second wire to keep the barbs in place. The final product was very effective. It kept the cattle in check and at the same time was a great way to mark his lands. 

He patented barbed wire in 1874, but before long questions arose about its originality. Glidden ended up involved in a legal dispute, which was not settled until 1892. You can view the original case of 1892 on the official website, of which the link is in the description. Already before Glidden won the case he established the “Barb’s Fence Company” in DeKalb. It led to him rapidly earning enough to become a wealthy and affluent businessman. Glidden ended up with five patents on barbed wire and by 1877 he was already producing three million pounds of barbed wire annually. 

Because of its simplicity news rapidly spread and in the region dozens of barbed wire factories sprung up. Not all of these factories held the patent, and as such, the illegal production of barbed wire too increased. One of the best examples is that of John “Bet-A-Million” Warne Gates. According to the Texas State Historical Association, he built the largest manufacturer and distributor of unlicensed non-patented, so-called moonshine, barbed wire, earning him quite the fortune.

The popularity of barbed wire grew across the nation, and as news about this efficient method to keep cattle enclosed spread throughout the United States, everyone wanted a piece. The wire, at first glance, didn’t seem as sturdy as a wooden fence. So imagine the surprise when a cheap and seemingly weak wire managed to stop cattle from breaking out. It only added to the enthusiasm surrounding the product.

To give you an idea: in 1884 the newspaper ‘The Prairie Farmer’ published a special edition about the ‘phenomenon that in industrialised history has met no equal.’ And the sales numbers backed that up. In 1882 the same newspaper published some statistics about barbed wire: that year 82 million kilos were sold, an 18000-fold increase since 1874. Joseph Gidden managed to become a millionaire, a rare feat at the time. Throughout the years he became, besides a businessman, the sheriff, member of the Board of Supervisors of Dekalb County and member of the executive committee of agriculture. In 1876 he even was the candidate for the democratic party for the US Senate elections. At the time of Glidden’s death in 1906, he was among the richest men of the United States, having a net worth of around a million dollars including the Glidden House Hotel, the DeKalb Rolling Mill, a factory, the DeKalb Chronicle newspaper and farming grounds in Illinois and Texas. The little town Glidden in Iowa is named after him.

Barbed Wire in War

The invention of barbed wire did influence the history of the United States significantly, and world history as well. As for the United States, it led to the rapid progression of the final stage of colonisation and the trek westward. Barbed wire made it incredibly easy to enclose private territory, which led to an end of the real Wild West. 

The volume of confrontations between farmers and cattle ranchers increased. Farmers that marked their territory with barbed wire in effect closing it off to third parties, and made it impossible for other cattle to graze on it. There even is a Lucky Luke story about this development: Barbed Wire on the Prairie. In effect, the cowboys and cattle ranchers had to start sharing the Wild West with farmers. Because of the ability to fence off property, the gap between landless and landowning-classes became more apparent than it had been. 

By 1885, only 11 years after Glidden started the mass-production of barbed wire, the entire Texas Panhandle was wired. Its effects, aside from clashes between cattle ranchers and farmers, was disastrous for wildlife. Suddenly many animals could not exploit their natural habitat anymore, losing meadows they grazed on or springs they used to drink out of. Wild buffalo, known for having impaired vision, could not see the wire and often became entangled in it, dying of hunger, thirst or their wounds. It was the reason Native Americans referred to it as the devil’s rope.

Aside from the Wild West, barbed wire became an icon of the horrors of the First World War. . Aside from the trenches, it was used to close off borders. One of the notorious examples is the Dodendraad, the wire of death: a lethal electric fence put up by the German military to control the Dutch-Belgian border during the First World War. These fences were put up to prevent smuggling and military desertions. The wire of death on the border caused dozens of deaths between 1915 and 1918, often killing smugglers, but occasionally unaware citizens too. 

But the Dodendraad is a pretty uncommon example for the use of barbed wire. Because trench warfare and the no man’s land between the German and French trenches are more potent icons of the misery of the First World War. Over a million miles of barbed wire was laid out on the Western front during the war. Everyone knows the photographs of bodies hanging in it. During this war barbed wire became a symbol of the hopelessness of trench warfare and the millions of lives wasted on the frontlines, in suicidal charges. 

Yet although it was deadly and used for those horrors, we cannot deny its success. A testament to the success of barbed wire is the incredible amount of variations of it. In Jack Glover’s ‘The Bobbed Wire Bible’, published in 1972, over 700 types of barbed wire knots are listed. And even nowadays developments aren’t finished yet. In the 1980s the substance of the steel wires was mixed with carbon fibre, creating more flexible, yet still strong and durable wires. By subjecting the wires to extreme heat the carbon molecules crystallised. Evoking this chemical reaction, in short drastically decreases the weight of the wire whilst maintaining its strength. In addition, during the early 21st century, the contents of the coating of anti-rust for the wire changed. This led to the tripling, if not quadrupling of the life expectancy of barbed wire. As such even though officially barbed wire entered the stage during the 19th century, and it changed the entire world, even today it is still not done developing.