In response to the new trench warfare used during World War I, the British introduced the tank, an armored vehicle with conveyor-belt-like tracks over its wheels that could break through enemy lines and traverse difficult territory. The first tank prototype, “Little Willie,” was unveiled in September 1915. Following its underwhelming performance—it was slow, became overheated and couldn’t cross trenches—a second prototype, known as “Big Willie,” was produced. By 1916, this armored vehicle was deemed ready for battle, making its debut at the First Battle of the Somme near Courcelette, France. The name “tanks” came from production workers who noted that the oddly-shaped shells of the vehicles resembled water tanks, and labeled the crates “tanks” when they were secretly shipped to the front lines. The name stuck.
Desperate to end the stalemates on the Western Front, the British introduced the tanks into battle, despite not having sufficient testing and their crews not receiving enough training. Initial results were not positive. In fact, of the 29 Mark I tanks brought into the war, 17 were sidelined by mechanical malfunctions before the offensive on Courcelette could even begin. The tanks plowed through barbed wire, but struggled to cross the trenches and artillery craters in no-man’s land, forcing some to be abandoned. Only nine of the remaining tanks reached enemy territory. Nevertheless, British military leaders saw the potential of the new war machines. British commander Sir Douglas Haig ordered the production of hundreds more. The Mark I was remodeled several times and before the end of WWII Germany tanks also took to the battlefield. In all, more than 8,200 tanks were produced. This new armored vehicle would come to dominate 20th-century warfare.
Here’s a look at some of this week’s episodes from Tanksgiving:
- In Alamein, British and Allied troops face off against the feared German Afrika Korps in 1943.
- What exactly was the ancient weapon engineered to stop an onslaught of bullets, elephants and cavalry? Find out in Ancient Tank Tech as experts and archaeological digs reveal new evidence.
- Intended as a secret weapon of the D-Day invasion, 28 out of 30 Duplex Drive modified tanks sunk before reaching store. John Chatterton and French diver Bertrand Sciboz travel to Normandy to find them in Lost Tanks of D-Day.
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