Leeds Engine:Histories: Tanks

A Brief History of Tank Making in Leeds

In the First World War there was huge loss of life as troops dug trenches along the front lines and launched attacks where men would go "over the top" and advance towards the enemy lines. These fronts saw little movements and the method of warfare gave the term "entrenched" to the English language.
To break the deadlock the military developed the concept of the Landship, an armoured vehicle which could travel over the rough muddy terrain with weapons to attack ememy positions. The principle manufacturer involved with this development was Lincoln traction engine maker William Foster & Son. The military were keen to maintain the secrecy around this project to maximise the Germans' shock when they faced these Landships in action for the first time, for this reason any correspondance refared to the order as 'tanks', i.e. water vessels. The name stuck and this type of military vehicle have been known as tanks ever since.
Tanks played a much bigger part in the Second World War and several manufacturing companies across the country were put to work building tanks.

John Fowler & Co
More about the history of this well known local manufacturer of traction engines and locomotives can be read here.
Despite the firm being of Quaker ownership and therefore adverse to making materials for war, they had a history of military orders. During the Boer War armoured traction engines with road trains consisting mobile armoury workshops were supplied, further examples of these armoured road trains were supplied to India. In the First World War several traction engines were supplied for moving materials.
Facing financial difficulties in the depression in the run up to the Second World War the firm was nationalised and naturally under state ownership they were put to use producing large numbers of tanks.

Above - Winston Churchill inspects a Fowler built Cromwell tank at Pickering in 1944 (Photo - Wikipedia)

Tank Designes Produced By John Fowler
Matilda II (580 produced)Click here to view photo
Cromwell (240 produced)Click here to view photo
Centaur (529 produced)Click here to view photo
Comet (284 produced)Click here to view photo
(Total 1633)[1]

Click on the thumbnails above to view images of the designs of tanks produced
We'll let the experts of the Tank Museum at Bovington tell you all about the Matilda Tank...

You may have noticed that a few of the names of tank types begin with the letter C, this signifies a Cruiser type tank. The Centaur and the Comet were developments of the Cromwell and are quite similar in appearance.

Click here for the Tank Museum's tank chat on the Cromwell tank

Charles Roberts & Co Ltd
Wagon maker Charles Roberts & Co Ltd of Wakefield made hulls and turrets for some of the Churchill tanks constructed by Vauxhall Motors.

R.O.F. Barnbow (The WWI shell filling factory)

The original state-owned Barnbow Royal Ordnance Factory was opened in 1915 and employed 17,000 people in its heyday, manufacturing munitions in the First World War. It was the UK's largest producer of shells during the conflict, within months of opening it was producing more than 10,000 shells a week. Described as a city within a city, the site reached a size of 200 acres and had its own railway station which received 38 trains a day to bring workers in and out, workers were provided with tokens for free travel to the site.[3]
No mention of the shell filling factory at Barnbow would be complete without a tribute to the Barnbow Lasses, sometimes referred to as the Barnbow Canaries as the Cordite they handled turned the skin yellow. With so many men away fighting the workforce at Barnbow was 93% women and girls. It was naturally a dangerous job and late in the evening on 5th December 1916 an explosion in Room 42 killed 35 women and injured several others. Due to censorship at the time, the story was concidered bad for moral, the incident wasn't reported to the public until 6 years after the war had ended. The records of the deaths said nothing more than "killed by accident". Within hours other women were continuing shell production and there would be a couple more smaller explosions at the site before the war was over killing a further two girls and three men. In more recent years tributes have been made including memorials in nearby housing developments at Cross Gates and naming of streets after those that died.[3]

R.O.F. Barnbow (The Tank factory)

Centurion tank at Bovington

On the outbreak of the Second World War a new state-owned Barnbow Royal Ordnance Factory was built on a 60-acre site at Cross Gates. Initially it produced gun barrels and other gun parts. It began installing gun barrels for American Sherman tanks and later moved into tank production in its own right. The production line commenced with the Centurion (photo above), and eventually more than 2,000 Centurions were produced. Post war the Centurion main battle tank was succeeded by the Chieftain which was in production from 1959 to the mid-1970s. The last two types of tanks produced at Barnbow were the Challenger 1 (photo below) and its successor the Challenger 2.

Challenger I MBT tank at Bovington

Tank Designes Produced By R.O.F.Barnbow
CenturionClick here to view photo Click here to watch video
ChieftanClick here to view photo Click here to watch video
Challenger IClick here to view photo Click here to watch video
Challenger IIClick here to view photo Click here to watch video

Click on the video camera icon to view the Tank Museum's Tank Chat video for this type of tank
Click on the thumbnails above to view the image of this design

Sectioned Centurion tank at Bovington

Above - Between 1982 and 1984 a team of apprentices refurbished and sectioned a 1946/47 built Centurion III tank for display at the Tank Museum at Bovington (Photo Kris Ward)

During 1986 Barnbow RoF was privatised and bought by Vickers Defence Systems. Vickers constructed a specially-designed new factory at Cross Gates for production of Challenger. However, for a decade the factory faced uncertainty. Its 3,000-strong workforce was halved and by the time the order was placed the Cold War was virtually over. The demand for tanks from the Western Allied forces in Europe had disappeared. Most of the factory's remaining 600 workers were made redundant in 1999. Many of the machines from the site were auctioned off and some are now used in the workshops at the Middleton Railway.

Internal Website Links
Anyone interested in Leeds' military production should also check out our article about the local aviation industry

External Website Links
The Tank Museum at Bovington
Historic UK page about the Barnbow Lasses[3]

The Steam Plough Works, Michael Lane[1] Look for this book on Amazon*

* These links are provided to help readers search for often rare books on the subject and to promote any books available, we are under no commercial incentives for this