The First Light Cavalry Tank
Since the start of operations with the MK.I and IV it became clear that a slow moving vehicle was not the best solution to make any breakthrough. The idea was expressed by William Tritton, the maker of Little Willie and "Mother", which became the Mk.I, to the newly created Tank Supply department. He expressed that a light and fast machine could better exploit the gaps made by heavier tanks in the enemy lines, reviving, in a way, the cavalry concept on a battlefield dominated by the machine-gun. This was in October 1916 and the department gave its consent on November 10. This was confirmed by the War Office on the 25th of the same month. Construction of a prototype of the "Tritton Chaser" began in Decembe
The "Whippet" (the surname, found appropriate, was from Tritton himself) was studied and built at Fosters of Lincoln, with many features derived from Little Willie. The turret idea was revived and a prototype, hastily built on the basis of an Austin armored car, was tested in February with a rotating turret and presented on March 3rd at the "Tank trial days" before the War Office, at Oldbury. On the 4th of March, Sir Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Army, approved an order of 200 units to be ready before the fall of July 1917. However, the heavily modified Austin showed at Oldsbury was nothing near the final prototype, and a lot of work and tests had still to be made. The Medium Mark A "Whippet" and its original shape with a "fixed turret" at the rear are now an iconic figure of WWI. This feature was due to the position of the engine and fuel tank at the front, and an octagonal case-mate for the crew was placed to the rear, bristling with machine-guns. The track system was entirely based on that of Little Willie, including the unsprung track links. The hull was riveted and made of reinforced iron plates, 8 to 14 mm (0.23-0.55 in) thick. The dual engine was derived from the ones propelling the well-known London "double-decker" or "imperial" buses, but required a complex steering system. Also the track skirts incorporated ingenious mud chutes.
Arrival and operations in France
The development time was approximately one year. The June 1917 deadline was not respected, and the first batch of "Whippets" were delivered in October 1917. The were immediately affected to the F battalion of the tank corps. But intensive training and instruction procedure had to follow, then shipping to France, and deployment on the front. Eventually this first operational unit was ready by December. But the whole British Army was recovering at the time from the terrible losses of the past Flanders and Somme offensives, so these tanks saw action for the first time in March 1918. They took part in covering retreating units from the Spring Offensive and later, when available in sufficient numbers, pressed into small "X-detachments" into regular Mk.IV/V units, fulfilling the embodiment of Tritton's original ideas. During these offensives their speed and mobility proved very useful, despite their relative lack of armor. Some units penetrated deep behind German lines, creating havoc. This was confirmed even more during the April 1918 Amiens offensive. One remains famous above all. The "Musical box", cut off its own unit, but roamed at will for nine hours behind the German lines, wiping out an entire camp battalion, a motorized column, destroying machine-gun nests and an artillery battery and even an observation balloon, before finally being silenced by direct gunfire. Many other performed some staggering exploits, and Whippet crews were among the most decorated of WWI.
Career after the war and influences
The Germans managed to capture some, which became training machines as Beutepanzer A. One of these then operated offensively during the German revolution of 1919. Only one tank duel involving a German A7V and a Mark A was ever recorded, in April 1918. But, lacking any gun, the Whippet had soon been disabled.
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