Toys, like most objects, reflect the times they are made in. They can do this in many ways, but perhaps the most obvious is through the choice of subject to be modelled. When I see a model, I like to be able to identify the subject and understand why it might have been made. Researching this can open the door to some fascinating history, and teach us a little about the past.
To illustrate this, let us step back in time to the 1930s, and take a look at the diminutive 152a Light Tank. This is one of a series of models of the British Army produced by Dinky in the mid-decade, and which remained in production (with an interval during the Second World War when materials were scarce) through to the early 1950s when they were replaced by the new range introduced at that time.
The Light Tank
Dinky 152a Light Tank
Year first produced:1937
L64xW34xH36, Metal 76g, Scale 1:60, Features: 2
The model is in most respects similar to the 1950s classics. The main parts are a mazak hull and turret, the latter able to rotate on the former. Into the turret is inserted a stiff rod to represent a radio aerial. Detail is captured nicely on the surfaces, including prominent lines of rivets which, although oversized, impart a feeling for the simple early construction methods employed on these vehicles.
The running gear is worthy of attention. The road wheels are cast as part of the hull, but nicely done with good detail, and flattened at the bottom so that they appear to be sitting with some weight on the tracks. The drive sprocket and rearmost wheel are separate castings, fitted onto axles fore and rear, with teeth that grip the tracks. The tracks are simple metal chains, which, like the rivets, are not strictly accurate but nevertheless look the part and, if the tension is correct, sag convincingly like the real thing. Not only do these tracks look good, but they work – push the vehicle and the drive sprocket turns the tracks so that the vehicle moves forwards.
Underneath the model is a metal baseplate with the following embossed on it:
“DINKY TOYS”, “MADE IN ENGLAND” & “BY MECCANO LTD”.
There is no mention of the model name or number, and the baseplate is sprung within the lower hull, secured without the later method of passing spigots from the hull through holes and then flattening the heads.
The black paint on the baseplate indicates that this model was produced after 1947, at which time in history the model must have looked very old-fashioned.
The model is painted army green overall, and has no other markings or transfers. It’s an accurate and detailed model, and makes an interesting comparison to the Centurion tank made 20 years later. The model itself stands up well by comparison, especially when we consider the way that the running gear on the Centurion was handled (see that story here)… Compared to the Centurion, the Light Tank is a tiny vehicle, which prompts a question – how could the Light Tank ever have been an effective weapon of war?
Vickers Mk VI
Let’s begin with some basic facts. The Dinky Light Tank is in fact, that very compact vehicle, a Vickers Mark VI. In 1928, Vickers were first asked to provide some prototype light tanks, and in the years that followed there was a steady development of the design culminating in 1936 with the Mark VI, of which almost 1,800 were built.
The Mark VI was a small, 3-man vehicle weighing about 5 tons. It could reach a top speed on roads of around 35mph, was armed with two machine guns (one light and one heavy) in a rotating turret, and carried armour capable of defeating infantry small arms fire and providing some protection against shrapnel from high explosive shells. It was roughly comparable in these respects to the contemporary German Mark I tank.
In 1940, the Mark VI went to France in large numbers with the British Expeditionary Force, and in common with much of the British Army, suffered heavily. They had some effect as mobile machine guns when they chanced upon enemy troops and soft transport, but were impotent against enemy tanks and hopelessly vulnerable against any form of anti-tank weapon. This experience was repeated in other theatres of war, and as soon as possible the Mark VI was retired from combat service.
So, we can see that the Mark VI had proven to be inadequate for active service. Why had this happened? To examine this question, we need to take a look at what people were thinking prior to the outbreak of war.
Royal Tank Corps
Even in the 1930s, the concept of a mechanised army – one which exploited and relied upon vehicles – was something of a novelty. Most people probably knew this was the future, but had only a hazy idea of how such a force would use vehicles to fight. It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that when Dinky released their first significant selection of military vehicles in the mid-1930s, they sought to provide some background on the subject in the Meccano Magazine.
In the December 1937 issue, a two-page article appeared describing tanks, and showcasing the two models released by Dinky, the Medium and Light Tanks. In a lengthy reprise of the early history of tanks during World War 1, their role as breakthrough vehicles – armoured against machine gun fire and capable of advancing across the difficult ground of a trench warfare battlefield – is described. The article then notes that “The tanks of the present day are far superior in every respect to those used in the Great War”, and proceeds to describe the main features of the two tanks modelled. After rather bizarrely claiming that the Dinky models are “one sixteenth full size” (presumably an error for “one sixtieth”), the article notes that the models are fitted with “creeper tracks that move independently in a fascinating manner when they are pushed along”, which indeed they do.
What the article doesn’t do is provide any explanation of what role the light tank was expected to play…
Most military men assumed that tanks would fulfil two roles. The heavier tanks would batter through prepared defences to achieve a breakthrough, acting in close concert with infantry, while more mobile vehicles would pour through the gaps like latter-day cavalry and attack into the enemy rear areas.
A minority of officers, especially those serving in the RTC (Royal Tank Corps), saw a bigger and more independent role for the tanks, acting not as a support arm to the infantry, but as the decisive arm of the army, with infantry supporting it. The RTC were responsible for operating tanks in the British Army during the inter-war period. RTC troops were distinguishable by their black berets and – in retrospect – rather sinister black overalls (supposedly black to hide the grease and oil stains). Naturally, they were strongly supportive of the role of tanks in future warfare, but their influence in the wider army was limited.
In the late 1920s, exercises were conducted pitching mobile forces of all arms, including tanks, against more traditional forces. In addition to learning valuable lessons about organising large-scale movements and the challenges of ensuring vehicle reliability and good communication, the exercises demonstrated that the more mobile battlegroup was able to use its speed and flexibility to outmanoeuvre their traditional opponent. The Top Brass were not convinced, however, and budget limitations during the Great Depression dampened down experimentation with the new and expensive mobile forces.
Into this situation, entered the light tank. It was primarily to be used for reconnaissance, replacing cavalry in that role. It was thought that in this role the tank, although slower, should have an advantage over armoured cars because being tracked, it would have a superior cross-country ability.
The Mark VI was expected to operate in advance and on the wings of the army, making contact with the enemy and probing their flanks and if possible, raiding their supply lines. It wasn’t anticipated that it would confront enemy tanks (in fact, tanks were not expected to be particularly numerous on the battlefield). In any case, when first designed, the heavy machine gun carried by the Mark VI was capable of penetrating a lot of contemporary armour. As a result of all this, it was believed that the Mark VI would not require an anti-tank gun or thicker armour.
Of course, the Vickers light tanks were also attractive for other reasons. They were effective in ongoing colonial policing roles, where their only opponents were relatively unsophisticated tribal forces, and secondly and most importantly, they were relatively cheap.
In practice, the Vickers proved entirely unsuitable in a modern war. Not only was it a poor example of the light tank, lacking as it did any weapon that could deter enemy tanks, but the concept itself proved problematical. Everything had been underestimated – the speed and determination of the enemy attacks, the wide availability of weapons capable of damaging a light tank, and the dislocation and chaos that would be experienced in mobile battle. It proved impossible to control the deployment of light tanks so that they did not meet strong enemy opposition, and they were simply too vulnerable to survive in normal combat. This hard lesson was not confined to Britain. Most combatants found their light tanks to be easy prey once exposed on the battlefield.
So, there you have it. The dapper little Dinky Light Tank is a beautiful model, and I wanted to know more about it. Getting to grips with the history of the real vehicle has provided a glimpse of the false expectations that were rife during 1930s peacetime military planning, and the excitement that surrounded the capabilities of the fledgling armoured corps. The Dinky model must have seemed a thing of wonder and modernity to the child who acquired it in 1937.
Sadly, my instincts when comparing the Vickers to the Centurion were correct – not only was the real-life vehicle not intended for the same intense combat as the bigger tank, but it proved inadequate even for the role it was given. Mind you, the Dinky is still a beautiful model…
The 152a Light Tank was sold in a set, the 152 Royal Tank Corps Light Tank Set. Inside this set were two other vehicles, 152b Reconnaissance Car and 152c Austin 7 Car (together with a 150d Royal Tank Corps Driver for the Austin). The ‘Reconnaissance Car’ is a strange beast, a 6-seater, 6×4 Morris Commercial CD which could be fitted with a table and used as a command vehicle.