Monday 11 March 2013

World of Tanks History Section: British Tank Building

On July 28th, 1914, the cannonade of a new war rolled through Europe. Nobody thought that the conflict would be a global war of attrition. All participants assumed they could quickly crush their opponents in a few months of decisive offensives. New countries joined the fight, armies took colossal casualties, and Europe was crisscrossed with trenches from the north shores to the south. Offensives were ineffective. Tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of lives were given for mere kilometers. In order to break the stalemate, all participants developed new, deadlier weapons. Flamethrowers, poison gases, airplanes. The British invented the tank.

The first tanks went into battle on September 15th, 1916, at the river Somme. Armoured monsters broke through the German defenses, but the effect was only tactical, not strategic. Overall, tanks failed to play a decisive role in WWI. Two decades went by before the full potential of armoured vehicles was discovered. Over these years, not only the tanks themselves evolved, but their use in combat. Surprisingly, the British, pioneers of tank building, had problems with both these aspects.

As always, the biggest problem was the human factor. The British Ministry of Defense had many opponents to armoured warfare. D. Brown wrote that military commanders treated the tank corps with hatred and jealousy. Claims that tanks were a waste of budget were common.

The pro-tank camp wasn't running too smoothly either. There was no single opinion about what tanks should do on the battlefield. Two viewpoints were common. One was that the tanks should advance with infantry, cover it with armour, and help it fight enemy infantry. Other tanks, field guns, and bunkers were the responsibility of artillery. The second camp was of the opinion that tanks had to act like cavalry. They would break through to the rear of the enemy, strike at their communications, warehouses, attack infantry that is matching and incapable of effectively fighting back.

At the end, the British decided to sit on two chairs at once. Tanks were divided into infantry and cruiser types. The first were slow and well armoured. The second were fast and thinly armoured. The armament was more or less the same. Although it was originally proposed that infantry tanks should just have machine guns, they were eventually upgraded to AT guns. The caliber of these guns was limited, and neither cruiser nor infantry tanks were equipped with HE shells.

Let us closely examine the two British tank families at the beginning of WWII.

Infantry tanks, at the beginning, had no AT guns. An example of such a tank is the Matilda I, which was built starting in 1937. It was a clumsy, but well armoured tank. In 1940, when the British first crossed paths with the Germans, it turned out that German AT guns were ineffective against it. Sadly, the advantage in defense was completely nullified by its poor offensive capability.

In 1939, the Matilda II entered production as the heaviest British tank of the start of the war. Its 60 mm armour could only be penetrated by 88mm AA guns and 76 mm guns on Marder II tank destroyers. Unlike its first modification, the Matilda II carried a 2-pounder gun. For the beginning of the war, this was enough. However, by the middle of 1942, the Matilda's gun stopped being a significant threat. A larger gun was not possible due to the small turret ring.

The best infantry tank of the early war was the Valentine. This vehicle first saw combat in North Africa. The Valentines were produced until 1944, even though it was deemed obsolete by 1942. It was hindered by its low speed and weak gun. Unlike the Matilda, the Valentine could be fitted with a 57 mm (6 pounder) gun. The cramped turret fit two crewmen, which reduced the crew's effectiveness. Around half of all Valentines built were shipped to the USSR under Lend-Lease.

As for cruiser tanks, at the start of WWII they were far from perfect, and distinguished themselves with poor reliability. Cruiser tanks were based on Walter Christie's vehicles.

The first cruiser tank was the Vickers Mk I, produced in small numbers since 1934. They were practically not used in the war, even though several remained on active duty until 1941. Most tanks were used for training purposes.

Vickers Mk II and Mk II were a little better than the first model, but were weakly armoured and lightly armed. Still, there were many non-combat losses, credited to the poor reliability of these tanks.

The Vickers Mk IV was supposed to solve this situation. The armour was increased to 30 mm by welding armour plates on to the turret and weak spots. This gave the turret a strange 6 sided shape, which the Covenanter inherited. The suspension was also improved. The Mk IV was much more combat capable than its predecessor, but was still broke down unacceptably often.

In 1940-1941, Britain suffered heavy losses on all fronts. In France, North Africa, Greece, British tanks were inferior to their opponents. Sometimes this was due to technological superiority, sometimes due to incompetent commanders. Britain had to take drastic measures.

The Tank Committee was reshuffled in 1941, after British defeats against Germany's forces. The committee was joined to the Ministry of Defense, and given control of all enterprises that dealt with manufacturing tanks or developing tank doctrine. This was vitally important, since the current state of affairs rendered the British army incapable of properly completing the objectives of a modern war.

Based on the experiences of 1940-1942, the British concluded that their tanks were ineffective against almost all vehicles of the enemy, aside from very old ones, like the PzI. Light tanks were placed on scout duties only, and, even there, they were slowly replaced by armoured cars.

Infantry tank experience in Europe did not go as poorly. As an example, one can look at the battle of Arras on May 21st, 1940. Matilda I and II tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment attacked two regiments of the 7th tank division and a regiment of the SS "Death's Head" division. The Matilda's armour, 60-78 mm thick, could only be lightly dented by German 37 mm AT shells. The SS "retreated with signs of panic" or, in more colloquial terms, fled. The British were only stopped when the Germans calmed down and towed in 88 mm AA guns. Infantry tanks could be improved by heavier armour and better weapons.

Cruiser tanks had the most room for improvement. On one hand, the cruiser tanks that Britain had in its possession distinguished themselves with neither combat effectiveness, nor reliability. On the other hand, the army needed a proper universal tank that was capable of both accompanying infantry and completing independent objectives. Cruiser tanks were the obvious choice here, but something had to be done about their engines, with the service life of several hours and their flaky ventilation and suspension. Skipping forward a bit, the British only accomplished this by 1944.

Both cruiser and infantry tanks required improved weaponry. The main tank gun at the time was the 2 pounder (40 mm) gun. It was ineffective against tanks of the time and nearly worthless against infantry: HE shells were either absent, or of such poor quality that tankers discarded them for AP.

It was necessary to use a 57 mm (6 pound) gun. The British had a gun like this, and it was used on the Valentine since 1943. For a very long time, most British tanks were armed with the 57 mm gun that, while better than the 2 pounder, was still not powerful enough. A 75 mm gun was only adapted in 1944.

Despite their active participation in the war and a realistic view of a tank's requirements, the British created several very unfortunate vehicles. For example, the Covenanter. This Christie suspension cruiser tank was released with the 2 pounder gun, and was very unreliable. By the time its technical problems were ironed out, it was obsolete. Its heir, the Crusader, was considered to be very comfortable to drive and use, but was not loved by tankers. The reasons for this were the same: poor gun, thin armour, low reliability.

The Matilda was replaced by the Churchill, which will be the topic of another article. It was a very strange tank for its time. It was probably more suited for the battlefields of WWI. Like all infantry tanks, it was slow, and had a questionable weapon layout. The turret held a 2 pounder gun. The hull, a 76 mm howitzer. This was quickly seen as a poor choice, and the Churchill was modernized. The howitzer was removed, the main gun was replaced with a 57 mm, and later a 75 mm gun. There were also fire support tanks, with 95 mm howitzers. One of the Churchill's problems was its narrow hull. It was impossible to enlarge the turret ring, and the existing turret was not large enough for a bigger gun.

This problem was addressed by a new infantry tank, the Super Churchill, also known as the Black Prince. It was largely based on the Churchill tank, but with a wider hull. The larger turret managed to fit in a 17 pounder gun. By May of 1945, when 6 Black Princes were ready for testing, the vehicle's layout and armament were already obsolete. The tank never had a chance to see combat before all work on it stopped.

The Cromwell, on the other hand, was a breakthrough. Developed in 1941-1943, it was armed with a 57 mm or 75 mm gun, and, with the "Meteor" airplane engine, it was the fastest British tank at the time. The Cromwell was a decent tank, but by 1943, the Germans had Tigers and Panthers. The 75 mm gun was insufficient against them, and the small turret ring prevented a larger gun from being mounted.

A more powerful gun was mounted on the Cromwell's successor, the Comet. With a wider and longer turret, a 77 mm gun with a muzzle velocity of 787 m/s was installed. This was the most powerful cruiser tank of WWII. It was not as good as a Panther, but significantly better than the German PzIV, which remained Wehrmacht's most common tank.

A cruiser tank nicknamed "British Panther" was built after WWII. It was called the Centurion. It had an angled welded hull, a 17 or 20 pounder gun, and remained in use until 1970. Later versions of the tank (starting in the 1950s) were armed with the 105 mm rifled L7 gun. This tank served as a basis for the experimental FV4202, which, due to a redesigned hull shape (the driver was now lying down), was smaller, lighter, and more maneuverable. The tank had the same 105 mm gun. The FV4204 was not mass produced, since at that point, Main Battle Tanks were conceived. The British themselves, in 1945, agreed that the idea of splitting tanks into cruiser and infantry was a poor one.

The last heavy tanks of Britain were the Caernarvon and Conqueror. They were built as heavily armed tanks, meant to combat the tanks of the enemy. This narrow specialization, and a large amount of technical problems, led to only 180 of these tanks built in various modifications.

Caernarvon and Conqueror were meant to fight enemy tanks from large distances. Based on the Conqueror chassis, another heavy tank was being developed, the FV215b. At first, it was meant to have a 183 mm gun with a drum type autoloader, but the gun was incapable of rotation, and had to be installed without any kind of turret. One close call with an HE shell, and the crew was dead and the tank inoperable. At first, this was solved by welding a box on top of the tank. Later, a turret was built, but had to be placed in the rear of the hull. 120 mm and 130 mm weapons were tested as well. The tank was not mass produced.

To summarize, while the British were the first to put tanks on the battlefield, they did not stay in the lead for long. Perhaps, this was due to the United Kingdom's geographical location on an island, with a reduced priority given to land forces compared to ships and aviation. When the time came to fight on land, the British were incapable of catching up to Germany and the USSR, whose tanks were the main striking force.

Original article available here: part 1 and part 2.


  1. Few errors in the article, while British tanks were indeed inferior in all but armour at the start of WW2 due to very little development during the 30's the intensive effort to catch up arguably produced the best designs of the early post war period which continued through the cold war and up to the present day with examples in use by other nations like Israel and the Middle East 30-40 years or more after design.

    This intensive development started late, in combat in 1940 France they dominated German tanks so there wasnt much urgency to update them and anticipate future enemy tanks in development the way the Germans and USSR did, German tanks by comparison proved very ineffective against British and French tanks with the iniative mainly coming from air support and concentrated numbers (the bulk of their forces were PZ1 and PZII's with only a limited number of PZIII's completed), this spurred on their development programmes of the PZ4, PZ5 and PZ6.

    This need to catch up only slowly developed for the British, through the Africa war 1940-42 they continued to easily beat Italian tanks and hold their own against german tanks which relied on their Infantry AT guns to defeat the British armour as their own tank guns were incapable of doing so. It was only in 1943 with the introduction of the Tiger that they really went behind though the Tiger itself was quite vulnerable to the 6 pounder as the Soviet tests demonstrated.

    What really hampered British development was engines, production from 1940-42 for the most powerful and advanced engines was heavily prioritised for fighter and bomber production leaving tanks with weaker truck engines, when Britain gained control of the skys over Europe these engines then finally became available for tanks leading to the Comet and later models which had excellent speed.

    I agree with the criticism that they produced very narrow tanks that couldnt fit large turrets, this was likely to them being developed in response to British roads which were very narrow and winding, Germany by comparison built the Autobahns in part to faccilate the movement of troops and armour rapidly from one side of the country to the other. The Russians on the Steppes also did not have the limitation of compact roads and were built without limitation, indeed wide tracks were specifically designed in as they would be handling off-road combat on wide open plains with few highways and soft ground was a major concern.

    You can see the effect of this in the dimensions of the British tanks being much more compact than that of other nations (and consequently unable to fit two engines to double engine power as they did), indeed some British heavy tanks are smaller than Soviet light tanks!!!

    Despite the poor power to weight ratio you can see that their hill climbing, fording and off road performance was excellent in the translated Soviet tank trials.

    1. British tanks were garbage throughout WWII. They bought American tanks and tank destroyers and self propelled artillery because their armored equipment remained garbage throughout the war.

      They made a failed attempt to up-gun the Sherman, but that only stripped the machine of its HE firepower to little advantage. The standard Sherman upgunning kit did the same job, and better.

      The Comet was a wannabe Sherman upgunning kit, which appeared long years after the Sherman had already been providing the same capability.

    2. So much ignorance in this post, UK bought US tanks because the industry was too busy (building warships/aircraft) to build them in the numbers needed, throughout most the war, UK guns faired quite well in the AT role over the US guns.
      The Sherman Firefly was a AT machine, it's sole purpose was to fight tanks, it did not need HE as it was often deployed with other machines which did have HE rounds.

      And no, the Comet was not a Sherman wannabe, they were designed for different roles, Sherman was a medium tank, Comet was a Cruiser, in WoT they might be the same class, in real life they are nothing alike.
      Sherman is meant to be a good all rounder, the Comet is designed to push through broken lines and engage other tanks.

    3. The British tanks were narrow due to the requirement to fit through narrow rail tunnels in the UK. It has nothing to do with narrow British roads.

      Likewise the construction of autobahns in Germany is entirely unrelated to any aspect of their tank designs.

      I believe the roots of Britain's WW2 tank problem must lie in the 1930s. During the 1920s the British continued to lead the world in innovative tank designs. During that same period, the US & Germany were basically doing nothing. The USSR was trying to get industry started and was beginning to build copies of foreign designs. The french had such a huge installed base of FT tanks that they fiddled around with some designs but didn't build much of anything. This left Britain as a clear world leader, and Vickers dominated the scene.

      However, in the 1930s it looks to me like most British progress stalls out and everyone else takes over. The British designs on the eve of WW2 are all pretty worthless with the exception of the Matilda II and Valentine. And even the Matilda looks pretty poor when compared to its contemporaries such as the KV. British cruisers were equivalent to Soviet BTs.

      Fortunately almost all British armored units were fully equipped with US tanks by 1943.

  2. "Unlike its first modification, the Marder II carried a 2-pounder gun."

    I think you mean Matilda II, but modification is the wrong word to use here. The Matilda I and II were unrelated designs, sharing only the nickname.

    The former was designed by Sir John Carden, at Vickers-Armstrong. He was dead by the time the Matilda II was on the drawing board.

    The latter design was based loosely on a different tank, designed by, chiefly, Vulcan. The two tanks shared no components, though they were similar in their intended role.