Medical Aspects of War Tanks

Author: Vollketten

Another quite interesting article from Vollketten, enjoy :)

I was browsing through some of the excellent archive of the British Medical Journal for another project I am working on and as a result came across some articles relating to tanks I thought I would share here as matter of general interest.

Regarding WW1 tanks

There was discussion (post war) about the use of tanks to carry or move wounded from the front and as dressing stations protected from enemy fire and shells. Notably one suggestion was that certain types of larger tanks could be “adapted for medical purposes with a dressing table in the centre of the hold behind the engine with electric light provided, stretchers and hammocks arranged in tiers capable of holding half a dozen lying cases or twenty sitting.”

Citing as an example of when this had already taken place another contributor stated that during the actions of the Australian Corps at Hamel about 150 wounded were brought back in by the tanks and that during the Battle of Cambrai one tank brought back 16 wounded at one time. To anyone who has seen the size of the interior of a WW1 British tank the idea of shoving twenty men seated or otherwise inside one of them sounds somewhat cramped and unpleasant at best.

The greatest hazard posed by these WW1 tanks should come as no surprise to most is one of ventilation. “It has been found by experience that tanks with a full crew on board and closed up for action the presence of carbon dioxide in the air and a high wet bulb temperature* the crew develop headaches, giddiness, breathlessness, mental confusion, collapse and unconsciousness. Some of these symptoms arise from the motion of the tanks causing sea-sickness aggravated by the firing of the Hotchkiss and 6 pounders.”

(*Wet bulb temperature means the lowest temperature that can be reached under current ambient conditions by the evaporation of water only in moving air)

These early vehicles often had the engine directly in the crew area and with no adequate means of ventilation being inside what amounts to a metal box was detrimental to crew health. “one of the most serious disabilities encountered amongst tank crews was dependent on the design and mode of employment of the tank itself, and was in no way determined by enemy action. Whole crews developed symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning from the exhaust fumes, even to the extent of becoming unconscious or occasionally demented.”

The interior of a Mk.V British tank on display at the Imperial War Museum, London, UK:

The solution was as obvious to the users and medical professionals at the time just as it is to us now as that of providing sufficient fresh air for the crew. “The extent of symptoms depends very largely on the mechanical efficiency of the tanks, and especially on the provision of good and efficient ventilation”

Due to the design and pressures of production though such ventilation was not apparent of WW1 tanks. By WW2 such discussions as to hygiene and physical welfare amongst tank crews had again become worthy of study.

On the general issue of hygiene one report particular report regarding action at El. Alamein lays the groundwork for why later British tanks ended up being fitted with a kettle, a water tank and even a small latrine. It starts on the topic of discussing hygiene stating “It has, however been heartening to observe the difference between the enemy sanitation and dysentery/diarrhoea rate and our own. The enemy appears to have no conception of the most elementary measures, and has a dysentery/diarrhoea rate so very much higher than ours that it is believed that the poor physical condition of his troops played a great part in the recent victory at El. Alamein.”

The problem of waste was to be solved with the use of incineration and the expedient of use cutting seats into used petrol boxes. (The British at the time had a small rectangular shaped fuel can although the German ‘Jerrycan’ was much prized in preference and later adopted in place of the rectangular can) The reason that this expedient was made was because the field service portable latrine weighed in at 27.2kg (60lbs) and though easily described as being ‘easily portable’ the reports notes that “…units would not carry even the simplest latrine structure” already overburdened as they were with other accoutrements of the job.

British standard fuel can:

Providing nutrition to the crews of tanks and AFV’s who were often deployed and isolated having to stay inside their vehicles for long period of time was also troublesome “A corollary to this problem (the scattering of food waste from tins etc. following company eating) arose in the case of A.F.Vs. Fighting all day, leaguered in strict black out conditions at night too tired to look after themselves, the crews of tanks and armoured cars were too often unable to get more than an occasional bite of a biscuit.”

In order to counter this problem which was detrimental to the effectiveness of the crews a special ration pack was provided (slightly smaller than the US contemporary ration pack) which was self-contained and most AFV’s were supplied with a special half-gallon (1 UK Gallon = 1.2 US Gallons) vacuum flasks for hot drinks.

On this issue of the climate and the debilitating effects of the desert heat and sun:
“…even in tanks and armoured cars the desert heat led to no disastrous incapacitation. The high evaporative power of the desert air saved the heat-regulating mechanism of the body from any undue strain, so that as long as the tank engine, and hence the engine ventilating system was pumping air through the vehicles conditions were not dangerous. In the desert therefore there was no call for special air-conditioning devices for AFV’s.”

I’m not sure many modern tankers would agree with that statement but it raises question over the vents module in the game.

On the subject of accidents:
“It was noteworthy that over the whole period accidental burns usually outnumbered those due to enemy action e.g. setting tanks etc. on fire. Petrol of course was the origin of most of the accidental burns seen in the Eight Army.” Mainly it appears that the injuries associated with petrol were from the use of petrol by troops as a cooking fuel in the absence of any alternative and its use as an insecticide in trenches combined with smoking habits rather than anything to do with tanks catching fire. On this topic there was no discussion of petrol fires in vehicles being a major hazard to crews save to mention and recommend the use of coveralls or clothing sufficient to cover the whole body to prevent flash burns whilst crews got out of the vehicle.

And my favourite, something which most people who have ever used a tank or APC may be able to attest to as still being a problem; that of ‘hatch bite’.

“…a type of finger injury commonly seen in tank crews- a crushing of the top of one or more digits by the sudden closure of roof flaps.”

The moral of the story is to always close a hatch with a closed fist.

On a final and more bizarre subject and something I’ve ever heard of was this:

“In conversation the other day with a non-medical German refugee, the casual remark was dropped by him that the members of every German tank crew possessed the same blood group. Is this arrangement, or can it be, applied to our Forces?”

Does anyone have a clue whether this is true or was planned in any way or just one of those odd wartime rumours because it sounds very unlikely?

Anyway, hope you found this interesting to see that many of the problems of the WW1/WW2 tanker are still there today. Maybe it makes us all appreciate those men who fought in tanks just a little bit more.


- British Medical Journal Online Archive at
- ‘Medical Aspects of War Tanks’ British Medical Journal 11th December 1920
- ‘Journal of the royal Army Medical Corps’, Major L.R. Broster, October 1920
- ‘Hygiene Aspects of the El. Alamein Victory, 1942’ Lt.Col. H.S.Gear M.d, D.P.H., British Medical Journal, 18th March 1944
- ‘Military Orthopaedics’ British Medical Journal, 17th April 1943
Letters’ ‘Regarding Medical Problems in Tanks’, British Medical Journal, 14th July 1923
- ‘Letters’ “Do we Learn from our Enemies?”, British Medical Journal, 25th April 1942

21 thoughts on “Medical Aspects of War Tanks

  1. Medical? Good that you brought that subject. Everyone knows that basic RPG team consist of a tank, a healer and a damage dealer. In WoT we have both tanks and damage dealers but we still miss healers :( . Please bring Bergepanzer and other to the game :) .

      • Well he didn’t say that he regard WoT as RPG. Just a joke.

        However, imagine a late game situation where you drive your Batchat with 20 HP left in the frontline alone, against 1000 HP T-62A, and suddenly healer SPG shooting a heal bullet from 1000 m away, healing your hp by 900 points XD.

  2. “It has, however been heartening to observe the difference between the enemy sanitation and dysentery/diarrhoea rate and our own.”

    Thanks. Now I will allways have this sentence in Mind when playing Malinovka.

    • Russian tanks had an extra emergency hatch at the bottom – now you know what for :) .

        • I heard once that empty shell cases where used for this as well. anyone knows if this was oftem the case or not? (ofc in tanks with big guns)

          • Great, hot liquid shit, making my image of tank driving in that time even more beautifull.

      • So did the US. AFAIK such were more or less standard for most tanks whose technology made it feasible – notably, torsion bars disallowed them.

    • It does, but not impossible. (It also brings to mind the blood group tattoos SS men were given during WWII, which eventually helped in catching them after the war.)

      • I believe in WWII the Germans used a method of blood transfusion that required both the patient and the donor to be near each other. This would make sense of why keeping people with similar blood types near each other.

    • Sounds like a plan that seems simple and smart during peacetime, but is impossible to maintain during wartime. I’m sure there were many of those around in all armies, and still are.

  3. How unfortunate that historical articles like this one get less comments then sensationalist articles like the silly “For Stalin” debacle.