Wednesday 30 March 2011

Death by Design

I recently finished reading an excellent book on British tank development between the wars and during WWII. Death By Design is written by Peter Beale - a former Troop Leader with the 9th Battalion RTR from 1943 to 1945 - in a frank and to-the-point style that often leaves the reader in no doubt how angry his subject matter has made him.

In the opening pages Beale makes it clear how he feels when he says "Tank crews were murdered because they were sent into battle so ill prepared.". The central thesis of this book is that tank crew lives were wasted because of incomplete training, uncertain doctrine (on how best to use tanks), poor leadership and sub-standard tank design.

Britain, the inventor of the Tank in WWI should have been ideally placed to lead the world in tank design and doctrine by 1939 but the inter-war years had seen army funding cut significantly and the role of 'offensive' land forces played second fiddle to the development and funding of the Navy and Air Force. The charge laid against the Government and military planners of those years is that they failed to plan for the eventuality of another war in Europe. Even when the harbingers of war began to press on the national consciousness the increase in funding and urgency failed to take into account the potential consequences of defeat. By the time the war started Britain's armed forces were woefully inadequate to the task before them.

This book covers all the reasons for this appalling situation, from the political backdrop of the inter-war years to the failure of planners to consolidate thinking on the correct role of the tank. This latter point is most starkly explored in the chapter on tank design which shows the wide and conflicting range of designs developed.

" the period 1930-35 work was done on fifty seven different designs of tank. Of these...twenty eight were never produced in a suitable form to issue to field units....Of those delivered to field units to be used in actions, 75 per sent were useless at the time they were delivered."

There is a lot of interesting information in this book. The personal opinions of the author are given full reign but I don't consider this to be a negative thing. On the contrary Beale's writing fully conveys the anger and frustration of many tank crews during the second world war, who often felt they were expendable assets rather than valued and highly trained soldiers. Ultimately weight of numbers and mechanical reliability were the key to defeating the technically superior tanks of the German Army. But I think Beale is very eloquent when he makes his case that many lives (both British and American) were expended unnecessarily.

One of the things that also made this book stand out to me was the political, pre-war story of budget cuts and  lack of development in Tank technology. In many respects it felt like a warning to current governments about the dangers of underinvestment in times of global military uncertainty. Given the pace of current world events - unpredicted and wholly unforeseen only six months ago - this book might be considered a warning from history. It's certainly an interesting read and one that is guaranteed to stir strong emotions in the reader.

Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: The History Press Ltd (1 Sep 2009)
Price: £10.49 from Amazon


  1. Sounds like quite an interesting read.

  2. Up until now I've read military histories of tank actions in the world wars. But this book takes a step back from combat to look at the wider picture. It asks "why were our tanks inferior" and then answers that question in the widest possible context. The answer encompasses a lack of political vision; administrative and technological disorganization; a lack of military foresight; and the failure of leadership at the very top to act on repeated warnings that our tanks were not up to the task being asked of them.

    Beale makes it clear that we did produce some good tanks. The Matilda was ideal as an infantry support tank during the early years for instance. But more often than not we wasted resources, most importantly time. The Churchill eventually became a good tank but not before it went through a protracted and painful period of development under battle conditions.

    This book was a genuinely enlightening read, which caught me by surprise because I didn’t expect it. It’s packed with extracts from official documents and reports and is brimming with data and technical specifications. But all of this information is used by the author to illustrate his central message. In some respects this reads like an official report into the failure of British tank development up to and during the war. In reality no such report was ever commissioned, so this book is as close as were are ever likely to get to understanding the problems, missed opportunities and mistakes that cost many tank crews their lives.

  3. Very interesting - coincidently I'm about to review a WW2 tanks & AFV encyclopedia today.

    I don't think I would like to be stuck inside any kind of tank during WW2. Feels like tank crews were thrown away on the Allied side in tanks that were knocked out easily. The insane doctrine of Tiger hunting by the US Shermans for instance, how fun is it to be in the tanks that are supposed to be used as decoys/sacrificed? Or driving around in a German tank waiting to be bombed or get a rocket up your behind from enemy air superiority.

  4. Lee

    I would recommend you read this book next then.

    'Tank Men' by Robert Kershaw (only £1 from Amazon!). Just go to Amazon and type in 'Tank Men'.

    Excellent read and backs up what you say above. US tank design was similar - the tank men wanted heavy armour and a big gun, the powers that be (including Patton) wanted fast tanks to get around the battlefield. Yes, the numbers counted but one Tiger could easily take out 10 Shermans - which was bad news for the US / British crews.

    But covers all sides in the war and includes - for example - the reason the Italians surrendered in droves in the desert. Their tanks were generally poor and could not compete with the heavier British tanks. As a consequence (and as there was nowhere to hide in the desert) once the armour had been stripped away, the Italian troops had no protection and so had no choice but to surrender.

    Anmyway, a great read and for £1 you can't go wrong!

  5. A couple more points.

    Most crews were killed by fire rather than explosions as such. Light tanks fared better than heavies in some respects as AP shot often passed right through the armour - in heavier tanks they would just ricochet around inside the turret (not pleasant!). In most cases, the crew had about 5 seconds to get out before succumbing to the heat and flames - not a lot of time when there was often only one way out. German tanks (using diesel) were less quick to 'brew up' so survival times were better - from 8 to 10 seconds. Shermans (using petrol) however were notorious for brewing up in a couple of seconds after a hit. However, the heavier German tanks - needing upto 5 crew - posed the additional problem of how do 5 men get out of a burning metal box in less than 8 seconds?

    Drivers were usually in the worst position in terms of escape. If the main gun was pointing over their hatch when hit then they had no way of escaping.

  6. Dear Phil
    According to Tout, Germans called Shermans Tommy Cookers and their crews called them Ronsons, i.e. lights first time.

  7. Very interesting post with some good comments. Well worth the read.

  8. Phil, I'm just finishing off another book and then I'll read Tank Men next. I’ve had this book for a while but not got round to reading it yet.

    On the subject of fuel and brewing up... Most German tanks actually used Petrol engines not Diesel. I think the King Tiger was one of the exceptions but certainly the earlier Panzers – including the Panther – used Petrol engines. There's a story from the German invasion of France where Rommel’s tanks stopped at French petrol stations to refuel!

    Although diesel was cheaper to produce it didn’t produce the higher power output needed for heavy German tanks. Also, from a tactical point of view, diesel created more smoke, more noise and greater vibration.

    I’ve just had a scan of the internet for some corroboration of “the diesel myth” and found the following information on the Historic Military Vehicle Forum.

    Panzer I - 4 cylinder Krupp M 305 air cooled (59 hp, 44 kW) - Petrol
    Panzer II - 6-cyl Maybach HL (140 hp, 77 KW ) - Petrol
    Panzer III - V-12 Maybach HL 120 TRM (296 hp, 220 kW) - Petrol
    Panzer IV - V12 Maybach HL 120 TRM (296 hp, 220 kW) - Petrol

    Panther - V-12 Maybach HL230 P30 (690 hp, 515 kW) - Petrol
    Jagd Panther - V12 Maybach HL230 P30 (690 hp, 515 kW) - Petrol

    Tiger 1 - V12 Maybach HL230 P45 (690 hp, 5145 kW) - Petrol
    Tiger 2 - V12 Maybach HL230 P30 (690 hp, 5145 kW) - Petrol
    Tiger (P) Elefant -2× V-12 Maybach HL 120 (300 hp, 220 kW each) - Petrol
    Jagd Tiger - V-12 Maybach HL 230 P30 (690 hp, 515 kW) - Petrol

    The propensity for Sherman tanks to catch fire had more to do with poor stowage of ammo than the fuel system. Side stowage in the ‘wings’ of the tank was particularly vulnerable to damage. One red hot shard of metal from an incoming shell could start a chain reaction and 'brew up' the tank in seconds. Later Sherman’s moved the ammo storage bins out of the sides and into the floor of the tank and utilized something called 'wet' stowage. This combined with armored bins to protect against penetrations, significantly improved crew survivability.

  9. A good review and one that has led me to contemplate buying the book.

    Thank you.



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