The tank was not the only tracked vehicle to be developed during the First World War. In this article, David Fletcher discusses the production and service history of the gun carrier machine.
For some time, in the summer of 1916, there appears to have been some disagreement between the Ordnance Board, who did not really want the new machines, and the builders, who did. In the end the matter had to be taken to the Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George. He inspected the new vehicle and decided to order fifty, over the heads of the Ordnance Board. The order was placed with Kitson and Co. of Leeds, renowned locomotive builders. Things had changed since the prototype was first discussed and more tanks were being built. Even so it was June 1917 before the type first entered service, and of the fifty built, one went to the Tank Corps testing ground at Dollis Hill in London, three were sent to Bovington to be used as driver training vehicles, two were completed as salvage machines and the remainder were split evenly between the 1st and 2nd Gun Carrier Companies for service in France.
Production Gun Carriers were similar to the prototype but with small armoured cabs, one on each track frame, near the front. They were for the driver and brakesman, while the two men required to change the secondary gears were located at the forward end of the superstructure, at the rear half of the vehicle. Mounting and dismounting the guns was a labour intensive process with a limited amount of power assistance. It relied on an ingenious arrangement of ramps at the front, but the gun’s wheels had to be removed when it was mounted and hung from each side of the superstructure.
Gun Carrier in Service
In the event the Gun Carriers were rarely used in their intended role, although the claim that only the six inch howitzer could be fired from the vehicle was disputed by the users who occasionally fired the sixty pounder gun in the same way. Due to their prodigious carrying ability Gun Carriers were more commonly used as supply tanks, a role in which they were very popular. Indeed in due course all the Gun Carriers belonging to No. 1 Gun Carrier Company were permanently adapted to this role by removing all the gun carrying equipment. However they were seriously disabled in an orchard near Villers-Bretonneux just before the Battle of Amiens, when German artillery ranged on them at random and destroyed a large number.
The 2nd Gun Carrier Company, by contrast, retained its gun lifting capability and although also used as Supply Carriers, fired artillery on occasions. By this time they were being operated by the Tank Corps and had become part of that organisation. What remains a mystery is to what extent the Royal Artillery was involved, men from existing batteries on the Western Front were told off for duty with the Gun Carriers and seem to have enjoyed it, but in the higher echelons one feels, they were not so enthusiastic.
The two Gun Carriers completed as Salvage Machines had the two front cabs removed and the men housed in an elevated portion of the main superstructure. Ahead of the superstructure a manually operated crane was mounted on a turntable above the redundant gun well. This crane could handle about 3 tons, although special sheerlegs were carried at each side to be used when heavier lifting was required, and power operated winding drums were fitted to the track frames, although rarely used by the look of it. The two Salvage Machines appear to have been used at Central Workshops in France.
A Mark 2 version of the Gun Carrier was designed in 1917. It looked a lot more like a tank of the time, although only a full-size wooden mock-up was produced, no prototype and no production machines were ever built. It was arranged to carry the gun, complete with its wheels, at the back. A Salvage version was also mooted but likewise, never built.
Find out more about the development of the gun carrier. Find out more about tank development and First World War tanks in the books below.