We and all nations have a sense that we have come to the turning-point of an age,’ said Adolf Hitler in a speech regarding the re-occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. Preparations for war were being made even as the horrors of the last war were still fresh in the mind. A storm was brewing. 1936 was a year of four-year plans, rearmament, and hasty statements of neutrality. And if the Tumbleweed Tank is anything to go by, it was also a year for bizarre weapons-invention.

Texan inventor A J Richardson’s goal was to further mechanise the future of warfare after the bloody stalemate of the First World War’s ‘war of attrition’. What if, instead of blindly launching mortar-bombs and men in the direction of the enemy’s trench, one could send heavily armoured, motorised bunkers across No Man’s Land? Then, from inside enemy terrain, the Tumbleweed Tank could lay down suppressive fire as the infantry advanced.

Richardson was told to draw up prototype plans for his idea, and in the July 1936 edition of Popular Mechanics, a cutaway diagram of the tank was published along with an article discussing the future of war machines. Things were looking up. At the outbreak of war, looking increasingly likely, America would be one step ahead of the game.

A cutaway diagram of the Tumbleweed Tank

Steel bubble

The diagram clearly indicates how this deadly rolling tank would work: a hollow, spherical, steel driving-cab is enclosed within two rotating outer shells in the form of cup-shaped halves. Motordriven gears rotate the two outer shells, which roll the tank along the ground. The speed of each shell affects the steering of the vehicle, while the heavy driving motor on the cab floor provides stability and prevents the tank from rolling sideways.

The cab could be sealed against poison-gas attacks, and the tank’s spherical shape (so Richardson claimed) would present the smallest possible target for enemy shells; all but direct hits would glance harmlessly off its curved sides.

But there was a problem: the men sealed inside this steel bubble, frenziedly machinegunning everything in all directions, had no idea what was going on outside. Richardson, it seemed, while painstakingly working out the optimum way for his tank to move effectively across the battlefield, had forgotten the men’s need to see where they were going and who they were shooting.

Terrifying for its operators, terrifying for the enemy, and terrifying for nearby friendly troops, the Tumbleweed Tank would have been an unpredictable ball of destruction, firing blindly and without discrimination on friend and foe alike. It is little wonder, then, that Richardson’s idea never got past the design stage.

The Germans adapted the Tumbleweed Tank idea later in the war, coming up with a typically more efficient and appropriate use for it. Little is known about the history of the mysterious Kugelpanzer (Ball Tank), since no plans or documents haveever been found.

The mysterious Kugelpanzer as it stands in the Kubinka Museum, just outside Moscow.

Only one survived the war – captured in Manchuria in 1945 –and it currently resides in the Kubinka Museum’s collection of German armoured vehicles. It has just 5mm-thick armour plating, was powered by a single-stroke engine, and (it is speculated) wasused as a one-man, light reconnaissance vehicle from which, presumably, the German soldier would actually be able to see in which direction he was rolling. Far more sensible.

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