Tanks have been integral to armies since World War One. But over the years a number of prototype designs have been made that never quite worked. Here, Adrian Burrows tells us about the most bizarre tank designs…
Since the Great War the mighty tank has formed the mainstay of any skilled (or unskilled) military commander’s army. The tank started its military career from fairly inauspicious beginnings. Originally called ‘Landships’ - this name didn’t stick as military bods were concerned that such an overly descriptive title might give away what their secret weapon was to the enemy, so the name ‘tank’ was instead adopted - the tank really hasn’t changed a great deal in its design or function since its first use in battle. Yes, advances in technology have rendered a modern tank a distant relative to the first tank prototype (fondly named as ‘Little Willie’ by the British Military) but it still remains a relative nonetheless.
The classic image of a tank is of a hulking and box like central chassis, the twin caterpillar tracks either side in order to propel its vast form forward over any and all terrain, and a rotating turret to provide a 360 degree field of fire. Perhaps the core tenants of tank design haven’t changed because the initial concept was just so effective. Why try to fix what isn’t broken? Well, that didn’t stop people from trying. Allow me to present to you the top three weirdest tank prototypes of all time.
3. The Russian Tsar Tank
Caterpillar tracks are brilliantly effective at moving big heavy tanks across difficult terrain. Indeed, they were initially designed in order to allow tanks to climb up and over the trench-laden terrain of the Western Front. Yet, as thought by the Russian boffins Nikolai Lebedenko, Nikolai Zhukovsky, Boris Stechkin and Alexander Mikulin, if caterpillar tracks are great then surely two giant bicycle wheels would be awesome.
That was the primary design decision behind the Russian Tsar Tank - and what a sight it must have been. Each giant spoked wheel attached to the central hub of the chassis was a massive 27 feet in diameter, the idea being that such a vast wheel would be able to plough through any obstacles in its path (and the two 250 horse power Sunbeam engines would certainly help with that). The tank was ready for war armed with a giant 8-meter high cannon turret and plans for further cannons to be attached to the tank’s frame. The central casing itself was a massive 12 meters wide with thick armor to protect the soldiers inside. So far so good? Why on earth didn’t the Russian Tsar Tank take off?
Its Achilles heel turned out to be the small stabilizing wheel at the rear of the tank (giving it its tricycle appearance). During the first test run through a field the stabilizing wheel became firmly entrenched in a patch of mud. The entire mighty form of the Tsar Tank became rooted to the spot, making it a major target that resembled a giant penny-farthing. After the abysmal test run the tank never saw active service and remained stuck exactly where it was until the end of the war.
2. Ball Tank
Texan Inventor AJ Richardson had a noble goal, how best to ensure men could quickly and safely cover the distance of a mud and crater strewn No Man’s Land in order to close in on an enemy position? The answer he came up with? A giant metal ball. This mighty metal ball of death could not only protect the troops within it, but being spherical it could also outmaneuver anything else on the battlefield. The project was never developed due to one small problem that scientists at the time could not overcome… there was no way that the troops within could see outside of the tank. In theory though, it would have been amazing.
1. Antonov A-40 Krylya Tanka (Tank Wings)
Tanks are big and powerful but slow and cumbersome. If somehow their maneuverability could be increased then surely nothing could stand in their path as they rapidly out flanked the enemy’s position. The logical conclusion to this quandary? Invent a tank that can fly.
And that’s exactly what Oleg Antonov set about doing in 1942. A T-60 Light Tank (light being 5.8 tons) went on a crash diet under Antonov’s watchful eye by removing the vehicle’s armor, weaponry and headlights. The T-60 was also provided with a limited amount of fuel in order to decrease its total weight yet further. What was the next step? Attach some wings to the tank of course. Yes, they were literally stuck to the side of the tank, transforming it into the world’s most unlikely glider. The final step was to utilize a Tupolev TB-3 plane to lift the tank gently in to the air; once the plane had reached a sufficient height and speed, the prototype could be released, allowing it to glide majestically into battle.
Did it work? I would love to say yes, but no, no it didn’t.
Remarkably no one died in the experiment. The TB-3 had to ditch the tank in mid-flight due to the massive drag it caused, but apparently the T-60 did glide back down to earth before being driven back to base. This initial set back didn’t put off the Soviet Union. Over the next twenty years the country was able to develop the necessary techniques and equipment to para-drop BMD-1 vehicles with its crew on board.
So, that’s my top 3 most bizarre tank prototypes of all time. Tanks with bicycle wheels, ball tanks, tanks that can fly… the weird and the wonderful. Perhaps your list would differ? If so I would love to read your top 3. There’s plenty to consider after all. Those that just missed out on a place in my top three include the Russian Screw Drive Tank that couldn’t go in a straight line and the British Praying Mantis Tank intended to shoot over obstacles. Both fine ideas ruined by issues of common sense. But then that’s what makes them so brilliantly barmy. Until next time!
Adrian Burrows works at Wicked Workshops, an organization that prepares great history workshops. Find out more about a World War One related workshop here.