Benjamin Coombs, British Tank Production and the War Economy, 1934-1945. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Tables. Figures. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 198 pp.
Reviewed by Jonny Briggs, PhD Candidate, University of Buckingham
Much has been written about British armour during the Second World War. From Sir Basil Liddell-Hart in the Fifties up to Max Hastings and Anthony Beevor in recent years, most of it has focussed upon the inadequacies of the British tank arm and has chosen to point at a variety of perceived failings within government, the British Army and industry as the cause of these inadequacies. As with much of the history of the British war effort a ‘revisionist’ trend has emerged in recent years, one which strongly questions the conclusions which dominated the debate in the preceding twenty or thirty years. Buckley’s British Armour in the Normandy Campaign concluded that:
Far from contributing little, or being disappointing, Anglo-Canadian tank units and crews adapted well to the new tactical and operational environment… [and that]…the design and production process so heavily criticised since the Second World War in fact made good progress between 1942 and 1944, resolving many shortcomings.
Benjamin Coombs new book, based on his recently completed University of Kent PhD thesis, is therefore an interesting addition to the area in that it approaches the ‘tank debate’ from a largely unexplored direction; that of the technical and economic issues affecting British industry’s efforts to produce the tanks the army required. Within this, Coombs considers the often-difficult relationship between the companies who built the tanks, the government and the British Army. Coombs draws on a wide range of sources including War Office and Cabinet records, Mass Observation reports and the records of a large number of British firms engaged in tank production. The last group is dispersed amongst a variety of small museums and local archives. The book is organised into six thematic chapters.
Initially, Coombs looks at the relationship between government and industry in the pre-war period, noting this was in two phases, disarmament and rearmament; as expected, the influence of ‘Ten Year Rule’ is emphasised as is the fact that the army was not sure how many tanks it required post-war or of what type or types. It is notable that there was very little input from government or the British Army into tank design for most of the early period and firms were largely left to ‘get on with it’. Rearmament when it came was late in the day and significant only from 1936 onwards; Coombs emphasises the defence spending priorities in 1936-39 whereby the Royal Air Force got lion’s share, with AA defence next and the Royal Navy following closely, the field army was very much the poor relation. In the late Thirties a light Tank cost £4,000 to produce, a Halifax bomber was £ 42,000 (p. 23). Even heavy tanks were about a third of the cost of a heavy bomber; also, Coombs notes only a small group of British companies were able to produce tanks in the Thirties. In addition, as demand grew, some firms were deliberately excluded from war production up to 1940, as ‘the government did not want to affect domestic consumption and the export market’ (p. 26).
The core of the book considers the key relationships that influenced British tank production during the war. These were the relationships between industry and the government, the General Staff and industry and the tank workforce and their employers. Throughout, Coombs makes comparisons with the process in Germany, the USA and some references to the Soviet Union and draws some interesting parallels. Fluctuations in the priority given to tank production continued throughout the war depending on the situation; Coombs notes this was actually very similar in Germany. He also notes the funding by British government of Air Raid Precautions for factories and the program of dispersal. Again, there were similar problems faced by the Germans; Coombs points out that the USA and the Soviet Union (later at least) did not face these problems and were able to centralise production of specific weapon systems, such as tanks, in smaller numbers of gigantic factories which could yield huge levels of production. Indeed, the Soviets produced two thirds of all their tanks in just three huge factories.
Tanks were, comparatively, difficult to build, requiring large amounts of resources and specialised labour. However, as Coombs points out, aircraft were even more so being at the ‘cutting edge’ of Thirties and Forties technology but aircraft enjoyed the advantage of an important and expanding civilian market to support research and development before the war and to offer a continued market for products afterwards. As discussed, British industry had a very small base of companies able to build tanks, which had to be expanded massively in wartime and in the face of competing demands on skilled labour. Coupled with the frequent changes to requirements, it is no wonder that there were problems.
The lot of the industrial workers is considered in some depth and illuminated by a well-assembled collection of statistics from company records and Mass Observation reports. Industrial relations remained a difficult area throughout the war and strikes were not uncommon though most were of short duration. Coombs argues persuasively that this was the unavoidable result of the economic instability of the Thirties, the extended hours and lesser holidays bought in for ‘the duration’ (undermining hard and fairly recently won improvements) and the workplace changes instigated by war, particularly ‘de-skilling’ but also the dispersal of industry and the introduction of large numbers of women into the workforce. Workplace conditions were often poor, particularly for female workers in industries where no provisions had been made for women on the shop floor. The table of figures giving reasons for leaving the employment of Leyland Motors in 1943-45 (p. 75) is a fascinating microcosm of the issues bearing on the industrial workforce during the war. The numbers leaving due to ill health (1,617) are rather shocking, a product of poor conditions and frequent accidents, equally surprising is the fact that Leyland made 168 workers redundant during the period. As Coombs writes:
The archives of industry have provided a further understanding of the factory environment and the different influences upon the tank workers… (p. 133)
Obviously, the design requirements generated by the army form a significant part of the picture. These were the product of recent experience and forward planning but constrained by the available budgets. In addition, as Coombs notes, different parts of the British Army wanted different things at different times though certain overall trends are clearly visible. Coombs rightly emphasises that in the period 1940-42, the British Army demanded quantity over quality to recover from the enormous materiel losses incurred in France and, as a result, obsolescent and obsolete types of tank continued in service for much longer than intended. The requirements of the General Staff were driven by battlefield experience and anticipated operations and threats; they were, not unsurprisingly, subject to not infrequent alterations. The whole period saw increased demands for greater firepower, better armour and increased reliability. There were also the priorities given to different types of tank; Coombs singles out the introduction of the Meteor engine with its increased reliability and power as a key decision, allowing tanks to carry heavier armour and culminating in the superior designs that entered service late in the war. As expected, there is much about the issues around the main gun on British cruiser and infantry tanks. As Buckley has argued regarding British armour:
…the most significant failing centred on the weakness of Allied tank armament, most obviously the 75mm gun’s lack of AP punch.
Coombs also sees this as one of the more significant failings and importantly, one of the more avoidable failings of the British tank program. He argues that this was a result of the War Office insistence on ‘uninterrupted production’ (p. 65) and the General Staff’s emphasis on high explosive capability as a result of North African experience.
Wartime government ministries combined civil servants, military personnel and civilians from industry; this was sometimes a fraught combination but it also often worked well. Unsurprisingly, Coombs dwells on the Tank Boards, first set up in June 1940, to oversee and coordinate tank production. As such, they were a classic wartime quango comprised of elements from both the ‘user’ and ‘supplier’ organisations. This is very different to German models whereby the army, as Overy has argued, dominated the ‘selection and development of weapons’ and had a distant and sometimes antagonistic relationship with industry.
The Lend-Lease program is also considered. The scheme’s impact was, as widely stated, enormous, but Coombs takes up some less known and understood side effects of the program. He roots the reliability of the Cromwell in the fact that it was not rushed into service as Lend-Lease Sherman had reduced the pressure to do this. It also allowed the British to start producing railway locomotives and rolling stock on a large scale again; many firms had converted to tank production in 1940-41. When Lend-Lease Sherman tanks ‘dried up’ in late 1944, British industry had to fill the gap again causing the Comet program to be reinstated.
Overall, Coombs argues that British tank production was ‘good enough’ despite its faults and that the companies engaged in tank production worked intelligently so that:
The transfer of British industry to quality tank production was achieved by the standardisation, specialisation and simplification of the tank program. (p. 133)
One minor issue is that some of the technical material on industrial processes tends to be rather dry, not helped by Coombs’ rather plodding prose style. Nonetheless, with its fascinating cross-fertilization of social, military and economic history this will no doubt become the standard work on this area for some time.
Citation: Jonny Briggs, ‘Review of Benjamin Coombs, British Tank Production and the War Economy, 1934-1945’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 20 December 2013
You can download a copy of the review here.
 John Buckley, British Armour in the Normandy Campaign (London: Frank Cass, 2004), p. 215, pp. 217-218.
 Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), p.186.
 Buckley, British Armour, p.133.
 Overy, Why the Allies Won, p.319.