The term ARV armoured recovery vehicle had not then been adopted but in any case, when the recovery vehicle was just another fighting tank temporarily adapted for the role, it was hardly necessary. The two special-purpose vehicles were described as salvage tanks when they appeared in 1917, and they were very distinctive.
A gun-carrying machine based upon Mk I tank components but looking quite different, was demonstrated at Oldbury in March 1917 and, as a result, 50 production Gun Carriers were ordered from Kitsons of Leeds, the first of which was delivered in France in June.
In the meantime, two vehicles from the order were completed as salvage machines, and one was photographed near Cambrai in November 1917. The basic layout is evident from the accompanying photograph, but the salvage machines were only different to the extent that a manually operated, rotating crane with a lifting capacity of 5 tons was positioned on a platform above the well where a gun might go.
The driver and brakesman were also shifted backwards to a location above the superstructure, and the armoured cabs they would have occupied at the front were removed. The two vehicles also had externally mounted winches lined up with the output shafts to the final drive; whether they were ever used for recovery work in the field is not known. They seem to have spent most of their time at Central Workshops where their cranes would have been useful.
Between the wars the subject of tank recovery seems to have been a very low priority due, no doubt, to lack of incentive. However, two entries in the records of the Mechanical Warfare Experimental Establishment (MWEE) indicate that some interest survived. In one it seems that an artillery Dragon was to be adapted for salvage work, and a doctored photograph appeared to show how it might look. Other records suggest that redundant Medium C tanks had been earmarked for the salvage role, although we have no idea what they might have looked like.
I had intended to cover both the ARV Mk I and Mk II in one article but there is so much to tell that it will have to be divided in two – at least. The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) was created by Royal Warrant in May 1942. Before that time, responsibility for recovery and repair of military vehicles, and indeed their issue to units, was the domain of the RAOC (Royal Army Ordnance Corps). The first step towards developing an armoured recovery vehicle was the adoption of the Caterpillar D8 tractor supported by a Loyd Carrier acting as a tender.
The D8 was big enough and powerful enough to drag a damaged tank out of trouble, or at least it could haul the tank to the nearest hard ground from where a tank transporter could winch it aboard and take it away. The main drawback with the D8 was that it offered no protection to the recovery crew, plus it was slow and unable to operate on surfaced roads without tearing them up. As a result, in addition to the D8 and the Loyd, a transporter of some kind – either a White Ruxtali or a 20-ton capacity trailer-was required… which brings us to another point.
I think there are a number of things that we fail to take into account when we try to figure out why certain things were done as they were, particularly during WW2. For example, useful as it was in the recovery role, the D8 was in short supply. The Royal Engineers had first call on those imported to Britain, particularly as bulldozers, so the RAOC had to manage with what was left over. Likewise, when it was agreed that tanks would make better recovery vehicles for other tanks because they were armoured and could move at a reasonable speed on their own tracks, the question arose as to where these tanks should come from. Tanks were in short supply after the fall of France, so the idea that they could be converted to other roles did not meet with much approval. In fact only the Churchill, which was already being criticised for its feeble 40mm gun, was available, and it had such a poor reliability record that at times it could hardly even recover itself.
Back in pre-REME days, the Director of Ordnance Services (Engineering) had formed a Tank Repair and Recovery Committee, although its work was interrupted by events in France in 1940. However, the committee was reconstituted in April 1941 and in due course gave rise to the Experimental Recovery Section (ERS), based at Arborfield in Berkshire. As a result it was February 1942 before work began on the production of the Churchill ARV Mk I, while trials were conducted on Covenanter, Crusader and Grant variants. We have yet to find a photograph of the Covenanter ARV although one assumes that it must have been very similar to the Crusader but, as the second volume of the history of REME during WW2 points out, the Covenanter proved ‘unreliable’ and the Crusader ‘hopeless’, so neither was proceeded with. The Grant, on the other hand, was described as being ‘exceptionally good’, although it never seems to have progressed beyond the prototype stage either, perhaps because spare hulls were simply not available. Although its life as a fighting tank was relatively short, it is not entirely clear what the availability of extra running hulls might have been.
As a result, only the Churchill was Immediately available, and it entered production, based on the redundant hulls of Mk II gun tanks. A dozen are said to have taken part in the Torch landings in Tunisia in November 1942. Reports of their usefulness encouraged the ERS to develop similar types on A24 Cavalier, A27M Cromwell and Sherman chassis (the latter apparently M4A4 and M4A2 variants), the idea being to issue ARVs of a suitable type to each armoured formation. Nevertheless it is worth noting that there never appears to have been a Valentine ARV despite the fact that large numbers of these tanks were then in service.
The Churchill ARV Mk I, which may be taken as typical, was a turretless hull, equipped to take a crew of three and fitted with a drawbar at the rear to enable it to tow casualties if mobile enough, plus a selection of items to enable repair in the field where that was deemed possible. These included a 5-ton portable jib, stowed at the sides but capable of being erected at the front and equipped with a 3-ton manual hoist for lifting out components, along with gas cutting and welding equipment.
Consideration had already been given to fitting a winch, but once again we come up against the problem of supply. All British-made winches were earmarked for shipboard use and none were available from the USA either. Aside from the driver, whose position was as in the turreted fighting tank, the crew commander and the third member of the team were accommodated in the turret well or what would have been the fighting compartment. Overhead protection was provided by a disc of armour plate that covered the aperture and also included a pair of large and probably heavy, hinged hatches. With these open and folded back, the crew members were able to mount and use their only offensive weapon, a pair of Bren light machine guns on what was described as a telescopic Pugh mounting.
This was arranged in such a way that it could be fired by an individual from inside the crew compartment without exposing himself unnecessarily to incoming fire. However there was not a lot of elbow room in this location and since the idea was to provide each vehicle with some sort of anti-aircraft protection -which required 360-degree traverse – it must have been a tight fit. Incidentally, one source claims that the Pugh mounting could take two Sten sub-machine guns instead of the Brens but, since it is difficult to see any purpose in this and no illustrations have yet been found, it must be considered unlikely.
So, as the REME history admits, the Churchill ARV Mk I was really little better than a tug. The heavy-duty drawbar had been fitted so that it could tow a casualty away, but for more complicated recovery tasks it was necessary to employ pulleys and cables, holdfasts, or spare tanks if the victim was awkwardly placed and, although a skilled crew could achieve wonders in this respect, it was hardly ideal.
The Cavalier ARV Mk I certainly existed, we have photographs and documents to prove it, but there is no similar hard evidence to suggest the existence of a Centaur ARV. Not that there would have been much to choose between the two. Each was powered by a Liberty V12 engine of around 400bhp which would have limited their hauling power to some extent. But in any case they would have been eclipsed by the Cromwell ARV which, while similar to look at, boasted a 600bhp Meteor V12. Some 58 Cromwell ARVs are recorded as being delivered to Allied Cromwell-equipped regiments in Normandy -which is to say about 15 regiments, probably excluding the Royal Marines which, with its Centaurs, had only been allowed ashore on the condition that it did not demand such support.
The first RAM ARV Mk I was converted by REME on behalf of the Canadians and given a thorough test at Arborfield. It was passed to the Canadians in May 1943 and their records show that it was subject to a variety of experiments including the installation of a winch powered by a Jeep engine and a bulldozer blade that could act as an earth anchor. Some sources suggest that the winch was only hand-operated but there is no clue as to where it was located – in the turret perhaps? Likewise, photographs taken at Arborfield in 1942 show no sign of a bulldozer blade fitted to the RAM, or an earth anchor come to that.
The Canadians then contracted with a British engineering company called Winget, of Strood in Kent, to produce 50 RAM ARVs on RAM I and II hulls, although this was later reconsidered when the Canadians were notified that for the invasion of Europe in June 1944, their armoured divisions were to be re-equipped with Sherman Mk IIIs (M4A2) and Mk Vs (M4A4) for which they would require matching types of ARVs from British stocks.
The design of the RAM was not quite the same as the British ARV Mk I since the tank retained its turret, albeit not traversable and stripped of armament. The gun was a dummy although the hull machine gun was real enough; all told 50 were built – 38 on RAM I and 12 on RAM II tanks. However when the Canadians decided they did not want them, all 50 were transferred to the British Army and may well have been the basis for the proposed RAM ARV II.