|THEY SAID IT WAS PEERLESS|
Armoured car or armoured lorry? David Fletcher examines the evidence
There is an interloper among the armoured vehicles in the Tank Museum’s First World War hall, but it has special dispensation to be there. True, since it dates from 1919, it is, strictly speaking, a post-war type, although the armoured hull is based upon a 1917 design by Austin while the chassis is the rugged old chain-drive Peerless – the model TC4 to be precise – which had already earned itself a great reputation as a heavy lorry. So, essentially, it looks like a Great War armoured car albeit on a truck rather than an automobile chassis, and it is the best that we can do since the only known British armoured car from that period is in India and likely to remain there.
I wrote an article on the Austins (CMV, June 2003) in which the Peerless was mentioned with an implied threat of more to follow, although in some respects this piece has more in common with something I did for the August 2009 issue which dealt with Seabrook and Pierce-Arrow armoured lorries. The point being that although the Peerless is, and was, always referred to as an armoured car, if the truth be told it is a lot closer to being an armoured lorry. Virtually all armoured cars produced in Britain during the Great War were based upon touring car chassis such as Austin, Lanchester and Rolls-Royce, and one thing they all had in common was pneumatic tyres. On the Peerless they were solids, as became a heavy-duty lorry chassis.
Incidentally, it is interesting that people still raise the issue of pneumatic tyres when these vehicles are discussed. The common view is that they could easily be punctured by bullets, which is true assuming that whoever is doing the shooting can take aim and fire accurately at such a tiny part of a fast-moving vehicle which may well be shooting back at the same time. Clearly it was not regarded as a problem at the time since wheels are rarely protected, it only adds to the weight, but I would venture to suggest that punctures were far more commonly caused by rough and stony ground, or by battlefield debris, than ever occurred from bullets.
The situation that was developing in 1919 had not been foreseen although it was common enough after most major wars. Although the main protagonists had signed documents and lain down their arms, there were dozens, maybe even hundreds, of smaller struggles taking place like so many loose ends still in need of tying up. Of course in those days the major powers still saw themselves as the heads of great empires whose duty, or so it seemed to them, was to keep these unruly factions in order. That is the big picture. On a more practical level there was another problem. Apart from the regular soldiers, who were few enough in number at the best of times, those who had signed up for the duration of the Great War, assuming they had survived, now only wanted one thing, to get out of uniform and go home.
The problem for the authorities was how to police these outposts of Empire with limited numbers of men, and the best answer seemed to be armoured cars, which had already proven their, notably in the Middle East and India. Trouble was, most of those cars were now worn out so the priority was to replace them. And there, as they say, was the rub. Experience had shown that when it came to operating over rough country with an armoured body, only the better quality, more robust, chassis such as Austin, Rolls-Royce or Lanchester would do. But it was these same firms that were now filling up their books with orders from a burgeoning private market, from people who wanted to shake off the years of austerity by purchasing a posh new car – war profiteers the soldiers tended to call them.
Either way it did not matter, none of the firms that the War Office approached were interested in building chassis for military use, and that was an end to it. The only firm that showed a spark of interest was the Austin Motor Company in Birmingham. It was prepared to provide more armoured bodies if the War Office could provide running chassis; that was not exactly the offer the War Office wanted but it looked like the only one it was going to get.
The only chassis available, still in store and unused, were about 100 imported Peerless lorry chassis, but all that you could say for them in this role was that they were better than nothing. According to the late Bart Vanderveen, the British Government bought some 10,000 chassis from the manufacturers in Cleveland, Ohio. As far as one can tell, these were imported as chassis and fitted with bodies made in Britain, but they had seen service all around the world and proved to be tough and resilient vehicles. Whether the same would prove true in the armoured vehicle role remained to be seen.
Although the armoured body produced by Austin for the Peerless chassis was virtually identical to that fitted to its original armoured cars, there were differences. The new hull was modelled on the third variant of the Austin as used by the 17th (Armoured Car) Battalion in the Great War, but with one significant modification. There were now two vision ports in the front visor (which was also split), instead of just one – which the driver and commander had to fight over – in the original vehicle.
One feature shared by the Austin and the Peerless was a rear driver’s position featuring a steering wheel and the three usual pedals but nothing else. It was only to be used in an emergency and was a nightmare even then. Here, however, the single vision slit in the hinged visor was retained as were the two hinged flaps in the rear plate. Even so, if you are looking at the vehicle from the back and cannot decide whether it is an Austin or a Peerless, you can tell at once (assuming you cannot see the chain drive) by an extra 4ft (1220mm) of chassis protruding beyond the body at the back. Nothing else makes it so obvious that body and chassis design do not really belong together. The War Office handbook for the Peerless attempts to make a virtue of this by explaining that it is an ideal place to transport a spare engine.
The Peerless was powered by a four-cylinder, water-cooled engine rated at 40bhp. The clutch was attached to the engine, but the four-speed and reverse gearbox was further back, combined with the differential in a massive transmission casing. Jackshafts from the transmission, fitted with brake drums, ended in small sprockets outboard of the chassis that carried chain loops to the rear wheels. The gear and handbrake levers were, typical of the day, attached to the side of the chassis, and the Peerless, like many other American vehicles of the time, was right-hand drive – this was not a special concession for British customers.
The main armament of the Peerless would have been a pair of Hotchkiss air-cooled .303in machine guns in independent turrets. In each case there was a suspended seat for the gunner and flaps in the turret roof which incorporated a spotlight. Whether, as seems to be the case, this double turret idea was first conceived in Russia is not entirely clear but it was a well-known feature of these cars. With the weapons in place it would not be possible for either turret to rotate a full 360 degrees but each had quite a reasonable arc of fire and there were many angles where both guns could fire together.
As an armoured car the Peerless was a disappointment. Visiting from India in about 1920, Major A J ‘Tiny’ Clifton was invited down to Bovington for a demonstration of the new vehicle, which those in authority hoped he might take a fancy to instead of the Rolls-Royces that he had been promised. Clifton took one look at the massive vehicle, swaying around doing figures of eight on a concrete apron. He suggested that the driver might care to take it off-road, which he did and the Peerless promptly got stuck. Clifton was not at all popular with the hierarchy but he knew his armoured cars and knew that the Peerless was not for India.
As a result, the only foreign adventure that any Peerless armoured cars ventured upon was to Ireland when British troops were under pressure in the south. And even then they were quite hopeless off the road. When the Free State was created in 1921 the British presented the new Government with seven Peerless armoured cars, 13 Rolls-Royces (see CMV January 2011) and some Lancias, all of which ultimately became embroiled in the nasty Irish Civil War.
Meanwhile in Britain, Peerless armoured cars were photographed in London, escorting food convoys from the docks at the time of the General Strike, yet it is interesting that when one of them appeared at a demonstration put on for the benefit of the Dominion Premiers on Camberley Common in November 1926, the Peerless (entry No 11) was described rather disparagingly as: ‘A commercial type of lorry chassis fitted with an armoured body. It is one of the earlier types of armoured car used during the Great War, but is now obsolete except for training purposes.’ One could pick some holes in that statement although it was true enough in principle. The Peerless was certainly based upon a Great War design, but then so was the Rolls-Royce.
The reference to training probably refers to the Yeomanry armoured car companies that came under the remit of the Tank Corps/Royal Tank Corps. In effect Territorial Army units, or ‘weekend warriors’, they borrowed sufficient armoured cars for their annual camps of exercise, and more often than not these were Peerless. However, since driving them was not within everyone’s gift, they usual came complete with a Regular Army driver.
Nevertheless, whatever they lacked in performance, the Peerless armoured cars made up for in stamina. Those rugged chassis, which were rarely subject to the strain of operating off the road, looked likely to last forever, and a number of regiments, including the Derbyshire Yeomanry while preparing for war in 1940, included at least one Peerless in the odd assembly of training vehicles wished upon them. After that they were used for home defence duties, and our own exhibit, for example, spent some time in such a role on an airfield in Gloucestershire.
Meanwhile, shortly before the War, they were thinking in the Irish Republic that it was about time they replaced their Peerless, and at first decided to buy some Leyland Terrier six-wheel chassis from Britain and build their own armoured bodies. In the end an attempt was made to fit the body of a Peerless onto a Leyland chassis, but when this did not work they decided to fabricate new armoured bodies using Peerless armour and superimpose a Landsverk 20mm turret. Four of these were built, one of which is now in the Tank Museum collection.
I said at the beginning that there was a connection here with the Seabrook and Pierce-Arrows I covered in August 2009 – it is this. In 1916, Wolseley Motors was asked to produce 16 of their ‘pom-pom’ gun-equipped anti-aircraft lorries for the Russian Government which, apart from the chain-drive, were identical to the Pierce-Arrows supplied to the Royal Marine Artillery in 1915. At least one of these vehicles, a Pierce-Arrow, was photographed in Dublin with its gun removed, probably being used as an armoured personnel carrier. As an aside to this there is a report to the effect that the rebels discovered that it was easy enough to disable a vehicle with wooden spoked wheels by shoving a metal bar through it, whereas the cast steel wheels seen on some Peerless armoured cars were much stronger and could not be broken.
The fate of the Peerless vehicles sent to Russia is a bit vague although at least one of them was later photographed with a roof and a small turret in place of the ‘pom-pom’. After the War, Vickers, who owned the Wolseley company, produced some very similar vehicles with gabled wire-mesh covers over the crew compartment which were apparently ordered by the Greek Government. At about the same time a similar armoured lorry was built in Britain, apparently for use in Ireland. It was built onto a Peerless TC4 chassis which had previously been operated at a mobile mount for a 3in anti-aircraft gun, although all that remained to prove that were the extension arms for the screw-down jacks used to stabilise it when firing.