The TOG’s story often goes that a group of old men stuck in the past independently developed an outdated and impractical tank under the assumption that the Second World War would return to trench warfare. This shared almost everywhere, so it must be correct, right? Surprisingly, no.
The TOG’s history has long been told this way, but it is actually far from the truth, having been muddled and confused by circular sourcing and outdated information. It may be surprising, but TOG was not built for the First World War, and was actually a well-thought-out machine.
Not too long ago the TOG was relatively unheard of, only really known by visitors to The Tank Museum in Bovington for its enormous size. But after featuring in a number of video games and becoming something of a meme, the TOG 2 is now one of the most famous tanks in the world.
This makes the fact that its commonly accepted history is actually completely wrong even more surprising, and the fact that it is relentlessly mocked as a bad design all the more tragic. In reality, the TOG was a tank desired by Britain before the war as a solution to overcoming enemy fortifications, not as a pre-emptive plan for trench warfare built by has-beens. It was adaptable, well armored, had plenty of firepower and could cross terrain no other tanks could.
Even basic information about the TOG 2 though, such as its turret and gun, are incorrect, as the TOG was not, and is not fitted with a 17-pounder gun.
So today we are taking a deep dive into the TOG project, looking at why it started, the people involved, and the design aspects of TOG to explain the logical reasoning behind this fascinating machine.
The origins of the TOG can be traced back to Albert Stern in the latter half of 1939 at the outset of the Second World War.
Stern was born in 1878 and had been involved in the development and use of tanks from the very beginning. He was originally the secretary for the Landship Committee and was critical in producing the first tanks during the First World War, before becoming the head of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department.
While Stern’s business acumen was excellent, his personality was quite abrasive and he had a habit of interfering and winding up the wrong people, particularly because of his inability to communicate and accept compromise. He would consistently earn himself a somewhat sour reputation, especially with the Ministry of Supply, which would come back to haunt him later on.
By the beginning of the Second World War, Stern had become increasingly concerned about the state of British tanks; the lack of innovation, numbers, and the stagnation of development, and in particular, the state of which the procurement and deployment of British tanks had been authorized.
At the outset of the war, there was a wide variety of tanks, most thinly armored, in poor condition and with little commonality between them. When factoring in armored cars and carriers the UK had some 74 different types of machines in differing marks and configurations – none of which were adequately battle ready.
His concern was that in the inevitable tank engagements that would take place, the UK had nothing more effective than 2-pounder guns, and any good anti-tank guns were not dual-purpose (capable against armored and unarmored targets). At the same time, few of these tanks lacked the adequate armor to protect them from anti-tank fire in return, making the job of counter-attacking and breaking through heavily fortified German positions with them a difficult task.
That last aspect was key to TOG’s development.
In response to this lack of capability, Stern proposed a new heavy tank.
His first correspondence about this was between himself and Sir Harold Brown in July 1939, followed by a series of telegrams and meetings including a positive interview with Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Edmund Ironside on the 26th of September 1939. Two days later the first specifications were issued for a super-heavy tank; a land battleship.
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The requirements called for a super heavy tank that could cross a 4.8 meter (16 foot) anti-tank trench unaided, and climb over a 2 meter (7 foot) tall obstacle. It also had to be able to cross shell-cratered terrain and be immune to 47 mm and 37 mm anti-tank ammunition, or 105mm howitzers at just 100 yards. In tank terms, this is virtually point-blank range.
TOG Wasn’t Designed for Trench Warfare
Now, it is at this point where the TOG’s story often begins to differ from the truth.
The story usually goes that the TOG was independently developed by a group of older gentlemen with the same principles they used for tanks during the First World War, as they expected the upcoming Second World War to bog down into trench warfare again.
However, at no point was this a bunch of old has-beens doing something on their own, nor did Stern or anybody working for him set the specifications; they were issued by the Ministry of Supply and the War Office.
They had also agreed a heavy tank was needed and they issued the desired criteria for one. It was then down to Stern’s team to find a solution to that problem.
Its trench crossing and obstacle climbing requirements previously listed are of critical importance, and where mistakes lie. This is because, contrary to popular belief, the tank was not designed to cross the infantry-style trenches of Flanders but dedicated anti-tank trenches and concrete obstacles. At no point was there any reference to the First World War.
Instead, this tank was designed as an assault vehicle to cross the Siegfried Line (also known as the Westwall) the Germans were busy erecting within their own borders – hence the need for a high obstacle climb height and great trench crossing width, to counter defenses expected on the line.
The Siegfried Line began construction in 1936, as an opposite of sorts to the French Maginot Line, consisting of 400 miles of bunkers, anti-tank concrete trenches, traps, and obstacles designed to stop conventional tanks in their tracks. Quite literally.
TOG was not looking back at the last war, but looking forward to overcome the war ahead, and how to get through these vast formations which had been designed and built to stop tanks. This same obstacle would later result in other famous tanks like the American T28 superheavy tank and the British Tortoise assault tank, which were designed with this very threat in mind.
As for the need to cross shelled areas, so often thought of as Somme-like in nature, this is not the case.
The Allies, never wanting a fair fight, would have likely softened these positions up first with bombing and artillery. Plus, there was the chance that the Germans might not actually want the Allied armies just to drive up unimpeded to their new reinforced defensive line of bunkers, trenches, and heavy guns and may actually shoot back.
All of this very quickly results in an area riddled with shell craters.
These shelled areas were not uncommon. Several times throughout the war Allied heavy bomber formations and artillery pounded a position into rubble, leaving it blanketed with craters. This required specialist engineering solutions to overcome, and during the war much thought was put into breaching these areas with vehicles, equipment and techniques.
However TOG was designed to traverse these conditions on its own from the outset, and as such it would not require dedicated tractors, bulldozers, fascines, and bridging units to help it cross this terrain – its very design would allow it to do so unimpeded.
Simply put, TOG was not designed to fight over the trenches of Passchendaele or Ypres but to take the fight back to Germany and break through its strongly defended positions that had been built just before the war to prevent tanks from breaching their lines. This is something the light cruisers and most infantry tanks of the time would not have been able to do with their mobility, armor and firepower.
The design we see today is not foolish, it’s the inevitable result of achieving the requirements set out for the TOG.
To cross large gaps she had to be long, to survive enemy fire she to take heavy armor, thicker than any tank of the time, to knock out bunkers and tanks she needed a powerful gun, and she needed the engines to get her there.
The Allies managed to cross the Siefried line in 1944 with casualties, but a vehicle had been designed with this very notion in hand all the way back in 1939.
Only much later did the idea that TOG was made to fight in the First World War begin to get printed and then repeated until fiction became fact.
So as we can see, TOG was not an archaic hangover from the First World War, she was designed to solve a problem, one that other nations were looking to solve too.
This is another misconception about the TOG, the idea that she was completely unique.
While it may be fun to imply the TOG was obviously a waste of time because no one else attempted anything similar, this is far from the truth.
Almost every other nation leading up to the Second World War had also been building vehicles with the same role in mind, the French Char B1, German Sturmgeschütz, and Russian T-35 land battleships all had similar roles – to either support or breakthrough heavily defended positions, destroy pillboxes and bunkers, support infantry and if possible destroy enemy tanks.
The Old Gang
After the specifications for this machine were given to Stern, he received a letter on the 12th of October 1939 from the Ministry of Supply informing him the ministry wished to set up a small technical committee for special vehicular development (SVD), and wished to place Stern as Chairman of this group.
Recommendations were made to include specialists from across the nation in this group, including Sir Eustace Tennyson d’ Eyncourt, Major General Ernest Swinton, Major W.G Wilson, and Colonel W.D. Watson.
This group would grow over the months to include men like Sir William Tritton and Sir Harry Ricardo.
Most of these men had pioneered the first tanks and set the foundations for how a tank should operate, but this is not why they were chosen as is usually believed. They were picked because each was a specialist in their field; from guns to gearboxes, engines, and fuels.
Most were in their 50s and had decades of experience, industrial contacts, and a wealth of expertise.
The notion they were pulled out of a nursing home and thrown together, is simply untrue. Many were involved in multiple projects on the side. Ricardo, for example, worked with Frank Whittle on his jet engines, and Wilson gearboxes were still in use long after WW2. Much of their work done before and after the war was picked up and copied internationally, and they were often recognized as some of the best men in their fields.
This is why they were chosen; if you are going to design a new tank to achieve a particularly difficult set of specifications, you choose the best.
This group gave themselves the moniker of “The Old Gang”, which is where the name TOG originates from. Their official title was the S.V.D.C, or Special Vehicles Development Committee.
Before any further work was done, the team set off to France, to observe and liaise with the authorities there, who were also working on similar machines for very much the same purpose.
Stern had been very impressed with what he saw in the French tanks, particularly the B1. In this, he saw a heavily armored vehicle, with the ability to cross trenches, destroy bunkers, and fight enemy tanks.
Early concepts of TOG, which still had to follow War Office specifications, were very heavily influenced by French designs.
The track system followed an all-round style that rose distinctively at the front. While this is visually reminiscent of First World War tanks, this was done for a reason, as such a shape and design is necessary for easily climbing in and out of large anti-tank ditches, river banks, craters and over obstacles.
A lower set of tracks as commonly seen today cannot do this, and most tanks now can only climb 3-4 ft of obstacle at best, while TOG had to climb 7 ft of wall.
They kept the French howitzer in the front to break through obstacles.
It was felt by the War Office initially that a turret was less desirable than two side sponsons, as the primary threat to such a machine was not in front of it, but the guns and infantry to the sides. After all, a turret could only focus on one side or the other.
These features were implemented in the first version of the TOG, TOG 1.
The tank had no suspension and a 75 mm gun from the French Char B1 in the front of the hull. The TOG 1 prototype was never fitted with its side sponsons, but it did receive a Matilda II turret. Power came from a diesel-electric drive train.
Nevertheless, Stern was not in favor of this and quickly a turret was fitted and the side-gun idea was reduced to machine guns to suppress flanking infantry that could attack a large tank from the sides. This lesson was learned the hard way by vehicles such as the Ferdinand at Kursk, and the Germans too had a good deal of training in attacking tanks as they passed, so it’s not entirely illogical.
As the war progressed and France was lost the TOG went through several changes and was able to adapt its firepower and up gun itself to meet any threat it could face. This is something that could not be said for a lot of tanks that either didn’t or could not take on larger weapons without a complete redesign or new project being initiated.
The second version, the TOG 2, came in 1940. TOG 2’s biggest change was its track run; it discarded the rhomboid track run of TOG 1, with the tracks instead dropping down below the side-sponson openings on their return run.
It also had a diesel-electric drive system, powered by 59 litre Paxman-Ricardo 12TP V12 diesel engines. To cross trenches the TOG 2 had to be extremely long; 10.13 m (33 ft 3 in) to be exact (almost 3 meters longer than a Tiger II).
The main weapons for the TOG varied considerably over the course of the project. They included a 2-pounder, 6-pounder, 75 mm, 17-pounder, and finally a colossal 28-pounder gun.
The last two of these are the most interesting.
One of the main features of the TOG 2 is its 17-pounder gun, something listed virtually everywhere the tank is discussed or shown.
However, the TOG 2 was never fitted with a 17-pounder and still isn’t.
The weapon was proposed, but it couldn’t be readied in time for use in the TOG 2 and therefore never installed. Instead, it was fitted with a large 94 mm, 28-pounder gun, which is the type found on the TOG 2 today.
This gun is not the same as the 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun as commonly touted but its own thing, and was quite capable of knocking out any Second World War vehicles, let alone those seen in 1941.
This weapon would evolve over the years into the 32-pounder anti-tank gun that was fitted to the Tortoise for the same role.
The machine guns on the sides were later dropped as the firepower in the turret increased.
TOG’s weapons were often brought in long before similar weapons were needed in service, in fact, TOG was the only vehicle made by the UK that arguably had a weapon that could counter any German tank years before any other.
Ultimately TOG’s fate was not in its design or even its role, as both proved to be obstacles that were under development until the wars end (with tanks like the T28 and Tortoise), and Stern was not averse to adaption. The next TOG vehicles were to be slightly shorter, faster, and more adaptable as the war changed.
Considering the extremely difficult requirements, TOG actually managed to meet them. It could cross huge gaps, climb very tall obstacles, carried good armor and a powerful gun. It was designed with cheap manufacture in mind, and its armor was easily removable to simplify repairs.
But Stern, or Bertie as he was known to his friends, was abrasive and did not tolerate fools gladly, nor was he easily approachable and detested interference from those who he felt should stick to their desk jobs. Stern would often ignore, block, or just refuse to cooperate with people who he didn’t approve of.
Unfortunately for him, not being able to play the political game cost him dearly and he was soon ousted from the Tank Board. Requests for parts and materials would be delayed and the Ministry of Supply made it particularly hard for his small team to progress at any reasonable rate.
Eventually his project was cancelled and Stern was removed from the process, a fact that cost the British war effort dearly when several of the leading experts under him also packed up bags and left. A key player in this dismissal was Duncan Sandys, a man who had a particular dislike for Stern and was pressing for his own heavily armored tank to cross the Siegfried Line, the A39 tortoise, and was in a position to remove any rivals.
The tale of TOG is a sad one, as very early on the British had a machine capable of crossing an obstacle that would later cost nearly a quarter of a million lives and chew through a vast amount of resources and manpower in developing alternative vehicles and concepts to conquer.
It had the firepower to obliterate any German tank in existence but was neglected and finally dismissed, a fact not missed in the tank scandal inquiries held later on, when it was raised that despite a host of flawed designs and tank losses, such a machine was near ready at the onset of the war and marked as a powerful, reliable, and capable offensive platform.
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Today the TOG has been relegated to an offhand joke, a mistake, and a lumbering relic from the First World War, ridiculed and mocked. This is a sad end to what was, for its time, actually a very well-thought-out and forward-thinking bit of kit.