By David Fletcher, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 18, 2009
In November 1917 two Mark IV tanks took part in the Lord Mayor’s Show, rolling at a stately three miles per hour through the streets of the City. It was an auspicious month for the Tank Corps. On 20 November they launched the memorable Battle of Cambrai, the first battle ever to be dominated by tanks. It was a temporary success only, but on an impressive scale, and for the first time since the war began church bells rang out all across Britain.
Public interest in the tanks was high, and in an effort to capitalise on this a tank was included in a display of weapons set up in Trafalgar Square; that tank, not surprisingly, was named Nelson. At this point someone had a bright idea. Tanks could be used to sell War Bonds. The National War Savings Committee arranged with the War Office for a total of six tanks to tour the country, and in March 1918 all six of them concentrated their efforts on London.
Tanks as fundraisers
Tank Number 130, better known as Nelson, came to Chiswick on 14 March, having visited Ealing on the previous day and being due in Fulham on the day after. The Chiswick Times reported that it was greeted with roars of cheering from the crowds lining the route from Young’s Corner. It was escorted by an imposing procession led by the fire brigade, ‘their helmets flashing in the sun’, followed by a military band, members of the Council and detachments of various local groups. This was probably the first tank that most people had seen close to, and the newspaper commented that ‘everyone was interested in the way in which the tank moved, and as it slewed round on one band at Town Hall Avenue excitement was quite intense’. The tank was parked near the Town Hall, and the ‘Tank Bank’ was declared open for business. Very soon a queue of investors had formed, among the first to invest were Beatie and Babs, local sisters who had become well-known music hall artistes and topped the bill at the Chiswick Empire that year. For a day the tank must have been the focal point of events in Chiswick, the band played, there were speeches and musical entertainments.
The following week The Chiswick Times reported that a total of £243,069 was raised, which worked out at £6 8s per head of population – not bad for 1918. For comparison though West Hartlepool, which came top of the league, raised £31 0s 1d per head. In the Tank Museum archive there is an old autograph book with a gold embossed cover which must have belonged to Nelson. It is full of signatures and the sums invested, and the amounts are surprisingly high: four figures, as in thousands of pounds, from private individuals. This is a remarkable testimonial to the attitude of the British public at the time.
A tank for Chiswick
In April 1919 the National War Savings Committee published a list of 265 towns in England and Wales which were to receive memorial tanks in recognition of their contribution. The list appeared in their journal, The Silver Bullet, but Chiswick is not on that list. So what happened? It is well known that Chiswick had a tank, and that it was supplied on behalf of the National War Savings Committee, so it is probable that Chiswick qualified when some town higher up the list refused to accept a tank, as some did.
According to The Chiswick Times of Friday 20 February 1920 Chiswick’s very own tank, carrying the training number 148, had arrived in town on ‘the previous Sunday’, which would have been 15 February. It arrived by train, was unloaded at Grove Park station (as the newspaper calls it), and driven under its own power to the location selected for it on Turnham Green, but there, as far as the reported story goes, the truth ends. According to the report in the press the tank, and the officer commanding it, had ‘come over from the front’, but where was the front in 1920?
There is, indeed, still a lot we do not know, but it is possible to piece a story together if one is prepared to accept a few gaps. It is almost certain that the tank had come from Bovington Camp in Dorset which had been the home of British tanks since 1916, and was a centre for tank training and storage as well as being the headquarters of the Tank Corps in Britain. Assuming that the tank had come up from Bovington by rail then it would have been along the lines of the old London and South Western Railway, via Bournemouth and Southampton.
Turning off the main line at Clapham Junction the train would eventually cross Barnes Bridge to arrive at what was then called Chiswick and Grove Park station. The next task would be to unload the tank. Contemporary maps show there was a short siding to the south east of the station which branched off into a small goods yard abutting Burlington Lane, so the siding was pointing north west. Presumably somehow or other the locomotive got behind the wagon with the tank on it and shunted it into the siding, but that still does not explain how it was unloaded. The ideal would be some sort of platform or dock at the end of the siding where the wagon could stop and allow the tank to be driven off. Failing that there were special wagons that could convert into ramps or, at the very worst, a stack of old sleepers might be built for the tank to drive over.
Once off the wagon and into Burlington Lane the tank set off up Sutton Court Road towards Turnham Green. The distance, as the crow flies, must be about three-quarters of a mile, which would take the tank about half an hour, and despite the fact that its arrival had not been announced beforehand, according to The Chiswick Times, a substantial crowd turned out. The paper also tells us that it arrived in the morning but we do not have a more precise time than that.
Having arrived at its final resting place the tank spun around in its own length, executing what would be called a ‘neutral turn’ today, lined itself up with the ramp that had been provided and proceeded to climb until its nose was pointing high in the air. There was no official reception committee, no civic regalia on show, only the Chairman of the Council, Cllr Thomas Arthur King JP, the Chairman of the Works Committee, Cllr Frederick George Cressy, and the Borough Engineer, Mr Edward Willis, presumably to ensure that the stone ramp was strong enough to support a 28 ton tank. And that was it, a tarpaulin was thrown over the tank and everyone went home.
The next morning, Monday, the Army Men, as the paper called them, returned and the tank was ‘put out of action and its machinery removed’, but what they actually did is not explained. Lifting the engine out would have been a major task requiring a crane and a lorry, removing the driving chains would be nearly as difficult, but merely taking off such things as the magneto and carburettor would hardly have incapacitated the tank for very long; items like that could probably have been purchased from the local garage.
Once the Army Men had gone the tank was covered over with a tarpaulin again ‘until the time of unveiling, a ceremony which it is hoped will be performed by some well-known personage’. But alas for such high hopes, the paper reported, on 26 March ‘Directions were given for a suggestion to be made to the Committee that the cover should be removed at once. It will be noticed that this had now been done, and a formal unveiling does not appear likely to take place’.
That was a pity in a way because such ceremonies, in addition to the usual long-winded civic speeches, often featured a spirited short talk from the officer in charge of the tank which, not to put too fine a point on it, was invariably a pack of lies. As noted above, when the tank arrived the Chiswick Times told the citizens that it had ‘come over from the front’, but the war had been over for more than a year, and if there were any tank men still serving in France they would have been engaged in clearing the battlefield of wrecked tanks, nothing more.
In fact the number 148 is the giveaway. Numbers like this were only painted on training tanks, they were not used on the fighting tanks in France, so the odds are that Number 148 had never been anywhere more dangerous than Bovington Camp in Dorset. The usual procedure was for an officer, along with two or three men based at Bovington, to select a tank from the huge dump of obsolete machines around the camp and having got it running, load it onto a railway wagon, park it in its new home and deliver a stirring speech about its exploits fighting the enemy.
There is one other slightly curious fact about the Chiswick tank in that it was a male machine. Back in those days there were male and female tanks, identified by their guns. A male tank like 148 had a six pounder (57mm) gun in each side sponson (the structure which housed the guns on each side of a World War I tank, and which was also usually the means of access), whereas a female tank had two machine-guns per side in much smaller sponsons. When the scheme to hand out presentation tanks began in 1919 female tanks were preferred. For one thing there were more of them, and for another it was felt that a fully operational tank, complete with guns, might be too much of a temptation to the socially disaffected, and it was easier to remove the machine-guns from female tanks than take the six pounders out of male tanks. By 1920 presumably that threat had diminished, for at that time quite a few towns and cities received male tanks. Originally, where male tanks were allocated, there was a special reason, rewarding a town where tanks had been built, or maybe marking the home of some illustrious person connected with the tanks.
The end of the Chiswick tank
The Chiswick tank was chopped up on site in May 1937. According to the Council minutes it was agreed, at a General Purposes Committee meeting on 19 April 1937, to accept the sum of £71 10s 0d from Messrs Charles Roberts & Co. of Sheffield for the scrap. Charles Roberts assembled Churchill tanks in World War II so did the spirit of 148 live on in one of them? In fact the presentation tanks were never really popular, being viewed by many not as relics of a victorious war but as ugly reminders of a dreadful struggle. Virtually all of them had gone by 1939, and the remainder were then cut up for scrap, all but one. In Ashford in Kent they still have theirs: a female machine that only survived because the rear end was once used as an electricity sub-station. An example of a male Mark IV tank like 148 is on display at the Tank Museum at Bovington.
The Ealing connection
There is an enduring legend that parts from Chiswick’s tank were used to restore the tank at Ealing to running order, so is there any truth in that? According to the Daily Sketch of Monday 14 February 1933, the Ealing tank was sold to a firm based in Longford, near Heathrow, and it made the journey, on its own tracks, on Sunday 13 February 1933, along the Great West Road and Bath Road – that must have been a long day. Presumably it was a quiet day on the roads. Both the Sketch and the Mirror published photos of the tank trundling along. It was a Mark IV, like the Chiswick tank, but a female this time and named Jennie Johns, a name it carried when it arrived in Ealing. For the run to Longford it was issued with a temporary civil registration number 144MX, but progress must have been slow – the obligatory policeman, detailed to escort the tank, is only seen walking alongside it, pushing his bicycle! The new owner, a Mr Speechley, said he intended to use it for haulage purposes; hopefully he was not in a hurry.
According to a hand written note, scribbled on The Daily Sketch cutting ‘The Chiswick tank was cannibalised to make this one a runner’. Unfortunately it did not explain what this involved. As mentioned above, the normal procedure was for the delivery crew to remove some vital parts to immobilise the tank before they left it, and it has been generally assumed that these were the driving chains at the back. However, Mr Lewis’ photo of the Chiswick tank being cut up in 1937 shows that the driving chains were still there then, so they cannot have been needed for the Ealing tank. Possibly simple things like the magneto, carburettor and Autovac fuel pump might have been taken, but that would hardly have been described as cannibalising. That is one thing we will probably never know.
Chiswick Urban District Council Minutes, Chiswick Times, records at the Tank Museum, Bovington. With thanks to Mrs Carolyn Hammond for tracking down some of the Chiswick information in this article.
David Fletcher is the Historian at the Tank Museum, where he has worked for 27 years. He has written many books and articles on the history of tanks, and his Tanks and Trenches: first hand accounts of tank warfare in the First World War is being re-published this year. He has actually driven the Mark IV tank at the Tank Museum for a BBC programme.