The Medium Mark A Whippet was a light tank designed to take advantage of any breakthroughs in the German lines created by the heavy tanks, although it wasn’t actually much faster than them.
It was based by an early design by William Tritton, one of the co-designers of the original Mark I, and was sometimes called the Tritton Chaser.
The Whippet was an unusually looking vehicle. The fighting and crew compartment was a fixed turret or barbette at the rear of the vehicle. The driver sat on the right of this turret. Four machine guns could be carried, one to fire in each direction, although it was often used with at least one removed, as they could fairly easily be swapped between positions. In theory it carried two gunners, but there was little space so often only one was used.
It was powered by two engines which were mounted in the long nose. Each powered one track through its own gear box and transmission. It had complex controls – each engine had its own clutch, hand brake and gear lever, but they could also both be controlled at once using a steering column which would accelerate one and slow the other at the same time. This only worked for gentle turns, and didn’t work if the main throttle was at its maximum or minimum settings. Tighter turns involved selecting different gears on the two tracks, and it could even turn on the spot if one engine was placed into reverse.
The Whippet had a similar level of armour as the heavier tanks. Its speed of 8.3mph doesn’t look impressive now, but it was about twice that of the heavy tanks.
Medium Tank Mk A Modified
One Whippet was used to as the basis of experiments designed to produce a high speed tank. In 1917 the tank was modified at the Central Workshops when Major Johnson installed sprung tracks, placing the road rollers on leaf springs.
In 1918 the same vehicle was modified again, this time at No.3 Advanced Workshops. The superstructure was modified, in particular over the engine. A Mk V transmission was installed, powered by a Rolls Royce Eagle engine. This version of the tank reached impressive speeds for the time of over 20mph.
At one point it was planned to equip four tank battalions with the Whippet, but in the end only the Third and Sixth Battalions actually used the type. As only 200 had been ordered, this probably reflects the relatively small number of tanks available at any one time.
The Whippet was in use with the Third Battalion of the Tank Corps when the Germans attacked on the Somme in March 1918. They were based at Bray-sur-Somme, where any of the new tanks were being repaired. However on 26 March the battalion was able to get twelve tanks into action at Mailly-Maillet, to join a small force of British infantry. On the route they ran into a force of around 300 Germans which they defeated, and pursued back to Serre.
On 24 April 1918 the Germans attacked towards Villers-Bretonneux, supported by a number of A7Vs. They ran into three Mark IVs, and in the resulting battle two of the British tanks were forced to withdraw while the third fought an inconclusive dual with the A7V. As this ended, seven Whippets under Captain T.R. Price arrived on the scene, and attacked the German infantry. The machine gun armed tanks killed or wounded 400 Germans and broke up the attack, for the cost of only one of the Whippets.
Both battalions fought at the battle of Amiens of 8 August 1918. They were allocated to the Cavalry Corps, and were meant to operate with it to exploit any breakthroughs. However the two forces hadn’t trained alongside each other, and didn’t coordinate their activities well. The cavalry was faster than the tanks, but had to stop at each barbed wire obstacle and machine gun nest to let the tanks catch up and deal with them. However one Whippet, Musical Box, managed to get behind the German lines and caused chaos in their rear areas before eventually being destroyed.
Six Whippets were amongst the first batch of British tanks shipped to Russia in April 1919. They were soon joined by another seventeen Whippets, along with a larger number of Mark V. The idea was to instruct their Russian Allies in how to use the tanks then hand them over. However this campaign would be short and fairly disastrous and by June 1920 the British had withdrawn, leaving the tanks behind.
Hull Length: 20ft
Hull Width: 8.58ft
Weight: 14 tons
Engine: Two 40hp Tylor engines
Max Speed: 8.3mph
Armament: 3 or 4 machine guns