Book Review: The Tank Factory by William Suttie

The Tank Factory: British Military Vehicle Development and the Chobham Establishment  by William Suttie

Publishers Description:

tank factoryDespite being the inventor of the tank and responsible for campaign-winning tactics, by the start of the Second World War the United Kingdom had fallen well behind other nations in the design and build of armoured vehicles. Here, William Suttie uncovers the history of tank design from a government perspective and the decisions and failures that led to that state of affairs, and details the formation of the Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment at Chertsey. Known as the Tank Factory, the Chertsey establishment sought to ensure that the United Kingdom became world-leading in the field of military vehicle research and design, and that the British Army would never be underprotected or outgunned again. Drawing on unpublished sources and photographs, this fascinating book reveals the establishment’s history, its groundbreaking research and its inventions and designs, including first-hand insights from those who worked there.

“The Tank Factory” by William Suttie is best described as a developmental history rather than a combat history of British Armor.  Those looking for descriptions of tank battles or tales of tanker daring-do will have to look elsewhere. This book is a history of the institutions and organizations responsible for the design and production of British tanks, not their use in the field.  The focus on the developmental aspects of British armor is not surprising given the authors background as a scientist for the UK Ministry of Defense for over 30 years.  Mr. Suttie uses his knowledge and access to unpublished materials to good effect, creating a rather detailed and comprehensive study of the topic.  While his writing style is clear and understandable, the somewhat dry nature of the topic may deter some readers.  The fact that the book is prefaced with a four page glossary of acronyms is a pretty good warning that this book is not light reading!

The first part of the book is devoted to the history of British tank development from its early days during the First World War up through the interwar period to the Second World War.  This topic has been covered in detail by other writers such as David Fletcher, Peter Beale and A J Smithers.  However, readers familiar with these authors will still most likely find some new and interesting bits of information in “The Tank Factory.”

The middle section of the book delves into matters relating more directly to the facility at Chobham Common, devoting a chapter to the process of vehicle testing at Chertsey, followed by several chapters describing the layout and organization of the Chertsey site.  These chapters will be of more interest to those that have a personal or professional connection to the Chobham establishment than to those that have a general interest in tanks.  The final 90 pages of the book will be of more interest to the typical tank enthusiast as it describes the various concepts, designs and components developed at Chertsey.  This includes well known postwar British tanks such as the Centurion, Conqueror, Chieftain and Challenger and also less well known programs such as Contentious and MBT80.  Medium and light tracked vehicle development is covered as well, as are wheeled armored vehicles.  The final chapters of the book deal with the development of survivability and mobility components.  “Chobham” armor, the most famous product of the tank factory is discussed, although only a few pages are devoted to the topic.

The Tank Factory is in some ways a unique book.  While there have been several books written on British tank development, most have dealt primarily with the tanks themselves.  The Tank Factory looks not only at the tanks, but at the facilities and infrastructure that were responsible for the development of these vehicles.  It is worth pointing out that there is no comparable book on US tank development.  The closest thing would be “The TARDEC Story: Sixty-Five Years of Innovation, 1946-2010”, although this book is a very different creature, being a $80 hardcover coffee table book published by the US Government Printing Office.  For those with a casual interest in British tanks, “The Tank Factory” is probably not an essential item.  For those wishing to delve a bit deeper into the topic and understand the context of how and why British tanks evolved the way that they did, “The Tank Factory” will be a welcome addition to their book collection.

The Tank Factory goes on sale in North America on June 1, 2015.

Special thanks to The History Press for the digital review copy of The Tank Factory.

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