The tank was not the only tracked vehicle to be developed during the First World War. In this duo of articles, David Fletcher discusses the development and usage of the gun carrier machine.
On 3rd March 1917, during the historic Oldbury Trials, near Birmingham, the audience was treated to a sight of the first Gun Carrier machine. We don’t know what it looked like but if it resembled the drawing that appeared in the programme it was most unusual indeed. Two men were involved in the design, they were Major John Greg, the Technical Director of the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company and Major Walter Wilson, one of the acknowledged inventors of the tank, and originally they intended the Carrier to carry a Six Inch Howitzer, or an Eight Inch Howitzer or the longer Sixty Pounder Field Gun of Five Inch Calibre.
Purpose of the gun carrier
The main motive for building the vehicle was to produce a machine that could advance over rough ground, in the wake of the tank, carrying artillery firepower to support the infantry when they advanced beyond the range of regular guns dug in behind the lines. The plan was that whichever weapon was carried, it would be possible to fire it from the vehicle or unload it so that it could be fired from the ground. However there was another, less obvious motive which concerned the manufacturers, Metropolitan. When production of the Mark I tank was complete, something would be needed to occupy the production lines and keep them going, and these would be Gun Carriers.
Mechanically the Gun Carrier would be based upon the Mark I tank, using the same components but laid out differently. The engine was to be installed the other way round, at the back, at the front a well would be provided to carry the gun, and the track frames would be lower and longer. Although there was a tail assembly at the back, it would be different from the tank in that the springs to hold it down would be anchored underneath the vehicle and despite the fact that the tracks were the same size as those on the Mark I they rode around heavy duty sprockets so the rivet spacing was different, so the tracks were not interchangeable between Gun Carrier and Tank. The Gun Carrier was to be built by the Oldbury Railway Carriage and Wagon Company, a member of the Metropolitan Group, at the plant where many of the Mark I tanks were being built.
When it came down to it the idea of transporting and firing the Eight Inch Howitzer was dropped. It was probably too heavy. When the prototype was demonstrated at Oldbury in March 1917, the only weapons mentioned were the Six Inch Howitzer and the Sixty Pounder Gun, each with some ammunition. It would be handled by an Army Service Corps crew while Royal Artillery personnel would handle the gun, at this stage there was no mention of Tank Corps involvement at all.
Priestman Grab Machine
Although as far as we know, no photograph has ever been found of the prototype Gun Carrier, and all we have is the drawing, it has been suggested that the original hull formed the basis of the impressive Priestman Grab machine of 1918. Priestman Brothers of Hull was reckoned to be one of the foremost producers of excavating equipment in the country and during the First World War they were presented with the task of mounting a huge steam powered mechanical grab on a tracked chassis for the Royal Engineers.
We think they were given the track frames of the prototype Gun Carrier. They mounted the massive crane on a turntable above the centre part of the machine and kept the front well as a place to stow the grab. The rest of the space between the frames was occupied by bunkers for storing coal and water, and since the original Daimler petrol engine had been removed the tracks were driven by the same steam engine that was used to power the crane, it moved along very slowly with a man walking at either side operating the steering gears. Probably the closest Britain ever came to building a steam powered tank.
Find out more about the gun carrier machine here. Find out more about tank development and First World War tanks in the books below.