Armored cars were tried in the early years of WW1 but were unable to navigate the rough, battle-scarred terrain of the Western Front; in particular they couldn’t cross trenches or break through obstacles.
The American experience with armored cars began on March 18th, 1916, when the 1st Armored Motor Battery, commanded by Captain Harry C. Montgomery, was activated in the New York National Guard. The original 93 volunteers were assembled in the 22nd Engineer Regiment Armory at Fort Washington Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The formation of the battery was, in part, a result of the 1915 Plattsburg readiness camp, where there were exercises with armed and partly armored motor vehicles. The Army officers weren’t impressed, but a group of wealthy businessmen decided to make motorized armor a reality.
The four armored trucks, eight unarmored scout cars, seventy motorcycles, and ancillary equipment that made up the 1st Armored Motor Battery were donated to the New York National Guard (NYNG) by a group led by Elbert H. Gary, chairman of U.S. Steel Corporation. The chassis of these armored trucks were standard Jeffery, Riker, Mack, and White trucks. Each was different in its layout, but all were 4×4’s, covered in steel plate weighing about 4,700 pounds and were powered by a sixty-odd horsepower gasoline engine. With a sixteen-gallon fuel tank, the vehicles had an operating range of about 175 miles, about 8 times that of an FT-17 tank.
The driver could access the engine compartment from inside the vehicle to make minor repairs or adjustments without leaving the armor protection. The vehicle could also be driven from the rear, alleviating the need to turn around – tanks could pivot instead. This feature has been replicated ever since in armored car designs.
The two machine gunners sat in open turrets and their assistant gunners could rotate the turrets by hand to get a 360° field of fire. Loopholes in the side armor also allowed crew members to fire rifles or Lewis Guns from inside the hull.
The NYNG was mustered into Federal service in June 1916 in response to the Mexican border crisis. The 1st Armored Motor Battery moved to Camp Whitman in Poughkeepsie NY, anticipating their call-up but the order never came.
The hang-up for Captain Montgomery’s command was that the Army considered the unit experimental. Unlike Infantry, Artillery, Cavalry, or all other supporting arms, the Army did not have a similarly organized or equipped unit. Thus in August 1916 the battery was stood down and returned to their home station. In early 1918 the battery was dissolved and its personnel were transferred to other NYNG units then preparing for overseas service.
Although never used by American units, armored cars were used by the British in the 1918 Palestine campaign and ancillary actions in the Middle East, and the Belgians and British both sent small armored car expeditionary units to Russia, where, serving along with indigenous designs, the vehicles were useful, especially in the revolutionary era (1917-1922).
In the post-war years, the French continued to develop the vehicles, using them all the way up to the 1980’s. More recently armored car technology has made a comeback, due to the unsuitability of tracked vehicles for modern urban warfare.
With thanks to LTC Brian Murphy.