Armour-plated protection through the ages: five innovations from The Engineer archive

The prospect of imminent annihilation is a great motivator and the correlation between warfare and technological advance is well known and documented.

The development of armour is no different in this respect and The Engineer has taken a keen interest in the materials and processes used to afford protection to the weapons of war, be they horses, boats, tanks or trains.

Here, we look back at five developments designed to give armoured protection to combatants on land and at sea.

The Horse Tank
Cruickshank’s Improvements in Cavalry Equipments

1856: The Horse Tank

Horses no longer take soldiers directly into battle but in 1856 a certain Mr Cruickshank had penned an article describing how armour could both protect horses and be used offensively. ‘Cruickshank’s Improvements in Cavalry Equipments’ was published in the very first issue of The Engineer and describes an armoured suit for horses that consisted of a rigid adjustable armoured frame to protect the horse and the lower extremities of the rider. Attached to this frame was a series of retractable lever-operated cutting implements and weapons with which the rider could scythe his way through enemy troops. This, the article said, would ‘render the attack of cavalry more formidable by providing horses with a means of destroying troops against which the attack is directed’.

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1861: SS Great Eastern

Five years after the seeming whimsy of the Horse Tank came a discussion about whether Royal Navy ships should be primarily built of wood or if they should be clad in a coat of iron. The nation had fought off the Spanish Armada with wooden ships; and had protected the country from Napoleon. Why change now at the height of the British Empire? The reason the question was even being posed was largely down to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By building the SS Great Eastern – designed to travel to Australia with 4,000 passengers without the need to refuel – Brunel had introduced a wholly new concept, which sent ripples through the Admiralty and discussions about the effectiveness of iron against ordnance. The prospect of fire helped to swing opinion in iron’s favour, a factor not lost on the Royal Navy who launched their first iron-armoured wooden vessels a year before the debate in The Engineer.

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The “self-propelled war car” was designed by Frederick Richard Simms

1902: The first armoured car

The “self-propelled war car” was designed by Frederick Richard Simms, inventor and founder of the RAC and SMMT, in 1899, and its building completed by Vickers, Sons and Maxim Limited in 1902. The war car consisted of a rectangular chassis built by the British Daimler Motor Company and was covered by a 28 foot-long detachable metal shell that looked like an upturned bathtub. It was powered by a 16 horse-power four-cylinder engine provided by the German Daimler company, and had a top speed mode of 9 miles an hour. The car’s offensive capabilities were made possible by two quick-firing Maxim guns and a “pom-pom”, an automatic cannon named for the sound it made when fired, and required four people to operate it, although several riflemen could also be accommodated.

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There were two identical armoured trains in service during
the First World War: one for the East Anglian coast and one for the east coast of Scotland

1919: First World War armoured trains

In 1919 two fearsome armoured trains had been commissioned to help defend the East Anglian coast and the east coast of Scotland. The identical trains were the result of several rail companies providing component parts. All the parts above the frame were protected with armour plating and the cab windows had metal sliding shutters. The idea behind the trains was that, in the event of an invasion, they would speed to the invasion site and deploy an infantry force, backed up with artillery from two gun carriages at either end of the train, which would slow down the invaders until further support arrived. The infantry vans were converted from 40-ton coal wagons, with half-inch-thick armour on the sides and three-eighths-of-an-inch thick on the roof. Neither train saw action, but did provide reassurance on the coast.

Learn more about WWI armoured trains

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The ‘little ships’ were mainly crewed by RN Reservists

1945: ‘Little Ships’ achieve more than Dunkirk heroics

The ‘Little Ships’, crewed mainly by Royal Navy reservists, formed a significant part of what wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as the “miracle of deliverance” at Dunkirk. Among the Little Ships’ crews, however, observations had been made that would lead to the development of a material that, towards the end of the Second World War, would save thousands of lives and tons of steel. The material was plastic armour and, in August 1945, Dr JP Lawrie of the Royal Naval Scientific Service penned an article for The Engineer that summarised the material’s development and its quick evolution for use during the D-Day landings of 1944.

Discover more about the development of plastic armour