Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, September 24, 2017


In the years after the Second World War the British were worried by the thickness of the armour Russian tanks were carrying. The obvious answer to this was of course bigger guns, however the financial situation was very much against the army, with budgets slashed and a shrinking army. The cost issue meant that it was impossible to bring out new tanks, equally the time frame involved with producing new tanks meant that a war could break out before the UK had its new bigger gun tank in service. To give you an idea, since the end of the war most British armament projects have taken about 10 years. A few have been shorter, but many more have been longer, sometimes by a considerable margin (FRES/Ajax, I'm looking at you, and face the wall!). To this end the British Army took the sensible step of designing a quick and dirty stopgap to carry the bigger gun, one which could be produced right now with minimal work, and was normally based on the chassis of a current in-service tank. It might not be perfect, but it'd get the gun to the front in a very short time. These tanks were the FV4004 Conway and the FV4005. There was also another tank that fits the bill, the FV4101 Charioteer, which uniquely did see service. 
FV4101 Charioteer

This last vehicle was technically a tank, as it had a turret mounted machine gun, which to British thinking of the time classifies it as such (as self-propelled AT guns didn't have the machine gun). It was created for the need to get more 20 pounders to front line service. All things considered it was a pretty dire vehicle though. It managed to break the old engineering adage "if it looks right it is right", for the tank does look good, with sloped armour on the turret and a Cromwell's hull. However, the turret armour was only 38mm thick and all the 20 lb rounds were stored in clips on the turret walls. The protection was just for proof against .50 machine gun fire and shrapnel from a 25 lb airbust. To achieve the balance of the turret the trunnions for the gun were mounted as far back as possible in the turret. In addition, a new 64" turret ring was fitted to the Cromwell, increasing the diameter from 57.5 inches.  
When firing at targets under 1500 yards the gun blast obscured the fall of shot, making adjustments to fire pretty difficult. The crew consisted of three, which meant a two-man turret. The stopgap work around to this was to use the vacant hull machine gunners position to carry a fourth man. This allowed the tank commander to dismount, let the 4th man take over gunner’s duties, while the commander shifted some distance to the side and was able to command the tank and observe the fall of shot without the hindrance of the muzzle blast. Of course this would leave him exposed to enemy action such as artillery and left the tank as more of a fixed emplacement lacking the ability to use its mobility.  
Fv4004 Conway
At about the same time as the Charioteer was issued to units (1952), the Director Royal Armoured Corps announced that the FV4004 Conway was ready to be produced, although it was not intended to do so at this time. This was a Centurion chassis, with a large box turret to mount the L1 120mm gun. The reasoning behind the tank was that a Centurions maximum all up weight was 50 tons, and so the tank had to be designed to that level, limiting the total level of protection that could be fitted along with the gun. Sensibly the reduction in armour was applied to the turret sides. 
The turret on the Conway was a massive box and one can see a resemblance to the FV4101. This monstrosity was dumped on top of a poor unsuspecting Centurion chassis. Although unlike the Charioteer it did have more protection, 132mm sloped at 19 degrees. On top of that was a gun mantlet  which was 140mm in thickness, originally it was quite a small mantlet,however on the prototype the mantlet was extended to cover the machine gun as well. The ammo was much more sensibly arranged, with eleven ready rounds, but only five cartridges in the turret. The rest were stored as fighting rounds in the hull. Luckily the crew was back up to a sensible four, and it had a single coaxial machine gun. Originally a ARV cupola was fitted however this was discarded in favour of a selection of episcopes. The gun recoiled into the bustle where there was a hatch to throw out spent cases, it was planned as the tank developed to include an automatic ejection system. It was also planned ot develop a lower less high profile turret as well as the Conway's service life went on.
Fv4005 Stage 1
The final stopgap was the FV4005. The requirement for it first appeared in November 1950, with a design in place by January 1951. If need be it was considered it could be in production within 18 months. It was an interim measure on the Centurion chassis, mounting the massive 183mm L4 gun. It was to be on standby until the FV215 arrived in service, from the start it was to be a limited traverse mount. It may have had a "C" name like many British tanks. One document, out of many that I have seen on it, refers to it as "Centaur". Now this could have been a typo, for Centurion, or the Vickers project name, as the document isn't an official government one bet was from Vickers. Like the FV4004 it was limited by its upper weight of 50 tons. So with a much more massive gun and ammunition its turret armour was just 14mm to provide protection against small arms fire. 
The decision was taken not to produce the tank in early 1951, however three prototypes were to be constructed. One was an entirely experimental vehicle to test the gun mounting, and the recoil forces involved and how they affect the stability of the vehicle. Then with data gathered two second prototypes were to be constructed. The experimental vehicle, known as Scheme 1, or Stage 1, had a gun mounted that could traverse all the way around the tank, although firing was restricted to a small arc to the fore or rear of the tank.
Scheme 2 however was to be the real prototypes. The gun sight was to be a modified German TZF-12A sight, which was most famously mounted in the Panther tank. The loading system for two gunners was worked out and was described as: "A very simple form of hand loading which can be operated by two men has been evolved for use in this vehicle." 
In use, the Stage 1 developed some problems with its concentric recoil system, however as the Stage 2 used hydro-pneumatic recoil no problems were encountered and the tanks fired over 150 rounds without any problems. In late 1952 the prototypes were tested at Ridsdale gun range by Vickers, and some modifications were found to be needed.
By 1957 the idea of the 183mm gun had fallen out of favour and the three prototypes were sent to various locations. The Stage 1 was sent to Shoeburyness Proof and Experimental Establishment, and the Centurion hull returned to active service. One Stage 2 was offered to the Royal Military College for Science, and the final stage 2 was kept by FVDRE. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Volcano with no Flames

In the late 1800's there was a revolution in explosive technology. Dynamite was invented in 1867. Up until then black powder had been the main explosive, alongside nitro-glycerine. Dynamite was safer than either of these two explosives. The logical thought follows, why not use it as a shell filling? A nice big bang without the problems of the earlier explosives. The trouble is "safer" isn't the same as "safe". Dynamite could still be detonated by the jolt of firing it from a gun, meaning it would explode in the gun barrel with disastrous effects. However, in 1883 Edmund Zalinski, an ex Union Army artillery man, demonstrated a gun that could fire dynamite filled shells. He managed this feat by using compressed air that was piped into a gun barrel to achieve a much smoother acceleration, which made it safer. Although air weapons had seen previous use in the form of the Girandoni rifle, with its air bottle, the Zalinski gun needed a large air tank storing air at 1000psi. This necessitated a powered compressor, at the time the only form of compressor available was a steam engine. This meant the Zalinski gun was limited to fixed fortifications or, as would soon be shown, warships. 
A battery of Zalinski guns, at San Francisco

In 1886 USS Vesuvius started undergoing construction, at the William Cramp and Sons shipyard. She was launched in 1888 and commissioned two years later. She looked a bit like a steamer or yacht, but she was fast for her time managing 21 knots. Her battery of three 15 inch dynamite guns were fixed in position, facing forwards. The arrangement meant she was rather front heavy. This wasn’t helped by the fact the ship had to be pointed at her target, to give you an idea of how unworkable she was for ship combat, she had the largest turning circle in the entire US Navy at the time. Range was set by the amount of air fed into the guns and their pressure. However, she did have a very shallow draught, and because of this it allowed her to travel up rivers to cities across the US, where she was used for propaganda. The idea of the guns was seen as revolutionary at the time, and because of this she received some fame as a wonder weapon that would alter the balance of power. In truth the navy knew she wasn't that effective with a limited range, unwieldy and with no real protection. 
Her guns could fire a 500lb charge of dynamite to a range of one mile, however a smaller 100lb shell could be fired out to 2.3 miles. The smaller shell was loaded into the gun with wooden sabots. 
USS Vesuvius
Despite these defects she was to see action. During the American Spanish War the US Navy blockaded a cruiser squadron in Santiago. The plan was drawn up that USS Vesuvius would conduct a shore bombardment. She took on two guides who had visited the area before, and after spending the day lurking behind the blockading squadron she moved cautiously forward. She reached the mouth of the harbour and discharged three rounds blindly towards the enemy harbour. To the sailors of the blockading force it sounded like a giant was coughing in the darkness, but there was no muzzle flash to give away her position. 
The forts defending the harbour fired a few shots at random into the night. The first shell struck a ridge line that lay between the enemy harbour and the USS Vesuvius. The second impacted at the base of the ridge line, the third hurtled over the ridge and splashed into the harbour. The detonations would rattle windows up to five miles distant and throw debris at least 200 feet into the air. 
Her job completed the USS Vesuvius retreated in reverse, at her top speed. She passed a light ship that was trying to get out of the line of fire at such speed it seemed like the light ship was still at anchor. For eight nights she conducted these bombardments. Although she never hit anything of importance her shells arriving without warning did have a negative morale effect on the defenders. 
Another scheme involving her was also hatched. It was suggested that the large explosions from her guns could clear the mine fields surrounding the harbour and allow the US blockading force to enter. This idea was quickly binned as the US ships would have the enter the harbour line astern behind the USS Vesuvius, and if she were sunk the entire plan would be impossible, and the squadron would be exposed to the enemy fortifications. 
When the US forces pushed into Santiago the Spanish resistance crumbled, and the cruiser squadron was forced to make a breakout attempt, and it was utterly crushed.
Battle of Santiago Bay, as the Spanish squadron comes out, you can see the headlands that the USS Vesuvius had to shoot over.
The USS Vesuvius never fired another shot in anger, although she did damage one more ship. After she was converted to a torpedo testing ship she managed to torpedo herself in 1915, and had to be run aground to prevent her from sinking. In 1922 she was decommissioned and sold for scrap. 
If you want to see plans and more pictures of the ship, including the internals, visit this page.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Dragon Surprise

Musa Qal’eh is a small town in Helmand Province, it was also home to one of the British Army's Forward Operating Bases (FOB), during the Afghanistan War. Dotted around the FOB, at some distance are several patrol bases. To the north of the footprint of control is Mount Musa Qal’eh, which the troops nicknamed Mount Doom, for a very good reason. It was Taliban country. Their territory ran from the mountains to a large wadi that runs north-west. The Taliban were forced into the mountains and away from the town in 2007 when a large force of Afghan National Army supported by British forces attacked the area. Two kilometres west of the wadi is a stone outcrop, known as Roshan Tower. On top of it sits a mobile phone mast, in a flat area no bigger than a tennis court. Due to its 130ft height it also makes a great observation point, so unsurprisingly the British put one of their patrol bases on top of it. 
A US Soldier stops in front of Roshan Tower

In September 2008 the Taliban launched a major attack on the forces stationed at Roshan Tower. For nine days the Taliban assaulted the small base. Inside it a platoon of the Prince of Wales Royal Regiment held out against the battalion strength Taliban assault. Battered by mortars and under attack the British only suffered one man wounded. The men of PWRR had been in a similar situation in Iraq, where they were surrounded and attacked in Basra for a period, so the veterans knew what was to come. 
 After the Taliban attack had been halted, the British forces stationed a Javelin ATGM platoon on top of the tower to provide covering fire out to the missiles 4.75km range. These missiles could be fired at any Taliban attack, and provide quick response covering fire for many of the neighbouring patrol bases, or any patrol outside of its base. The trouble was the Taliban could hear the launch of the missiles and take cover before the missile could reach them. 
In January 2009 the Taliban began another series of assaults. During one of these assaults, suddenly a huge jet of flame leapt from the top of Roshan Tower. Almost instantly later the Taliban positions exploded, much to the confusion and surprise of the attackers. The Taliban so in fear of this named it The Dragon. 

The UK has a long history of not fighting fair, and if the Taliban had any historians they'd know full well that there is a long list of times when the British had manhandled big guns into position on hills and positions where the enemy thought it was impossible to get these artillery pieces. The Napoleonic War, the American Civil War and the Boer War all had incidents of guns being sited in odd positions by the British. The most famous of which is of course the relief of Ladysmith from the Boer War, which resulted in the Field Gun Competition that became immortalised in the UK by its inclusion in the Royal Tournament up until 1999. 

At Roshan Tower a L118 105mm gun had been helicoptered into the base of the tower as part of the normal logistics effort by a Chinook helicopter (called a "Flying Cow" by the Afghanistani's). From there, the gun was dismantled into smaller loads, and in secrecy overnight, was lifted up the side of the tower. While the operation to lift this "light gun" that weighed nearly two tons was going on, Gurkha units mounted patrols in the surrounding area. Despite the rough surface that threatened to crumble under the weight of the gun, by dawn the L118 was camouflaged, in position on top of the mountain with a stack of ammunition. 
An Australian gunner, attached to British forces, fires the Roshan Dragon towards Mount Musa Qal’eh
A L118, fires a round at night.
The advantage of the L118 over the Javelin is that firing the gun direct contact, the shell arrives before the sound of its firing meaning the Taliban had no time to react. From firing to the shell impacting the time is a mere five seconds, when compared to the 30 odd seconds for a maximum range shot from the Javelin. Neighbouring US forces when patrolling the area were impressed by the many holes knocked in Taliban positions, and intelligence reported that the Taliban were genuinely frightened of the moment when the British army would "Bring their Dragon from its lair". 

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