Sunday 21 February 2016

Centurion's Younger Brother

The British post-war FV4202 medium tank never entered mass production, and its run was limited to three units. One of them was scrapped and another converted to an ARV. The third became an exhibit at Bovington. So what's the history of this vehicle?

Towards the mid-1950s, tank designers saw that the current generation of tanks is at an end. Something new and revolutionary had to be done. The 1950s, specifically the latter half, became a time of new creative ideas in the tank design world.

The birthplace of tanks was no exception. The Centurion, the peak of the achievements of British engineers during WWII, was nearing its decline. Three roads were open: one was the creation of a while new tank, another was a deep modernization, the third was an evolutionary step. The third path was seen as the least promising, but it was the one that was chosen. The 105 mm L7 gun's appearance extended the Centurion's life for decades. Even the prototype built in 1945 was still serving somewhere. The result of this modernization was the Centurion Action X that appeared in 1955. The Centurion Mk.7 hull was equipped with a new turret, but the project did not progress past experiments.

As for the creation of a new tank, the first step in this direction was taken in 1956. A tank nicknamed "40 ton Centurion" entered trials. This was an unofficial nickname, of course, the tank's real index was FV4202. Compared with the competitor Medium Gun Tank FV4201, it seemed like a step back. The "predecessor" had an IS-3-like pike with a central position for the driver, and a whole new turret. The FV4202, the vehicle chosen to be built in metal, was a much more conservative evolution of the ideas in the Centurion and Centurion Action X.

The hull was a development of the Centurion, but ended up somewhat lower. Thanks to this, the overall height of the FV4202 was 2.75 meters, a whole quarter of a meter less than the Centurion. The lower hull was used to increase the slant of the upper front plate. The hull was also half a meter shorter, reducing the amount of road wheels to five per side. Thanks to these operations, the mass of the tank decreased from 51 to 40 tons.

The turret was a development of the Action X. The front resembled its predecessor, but had some novelties, like the "beard" underneath the gun mount. The roof also had many common elements. The rear was noticeably different. A late model 20-pounder gun was used. By this time, it got rid of the massive muzzle brake and obtained a fume extractor. Externally, this gun looks similar to the 105 mm L7, which leads to confusion.

Three FV4202s were built. Trials continued for several years, but the tank wasn't given a chance. The evolutionary development of the Centurion was declined and, instead, the FV4201 concept was developed further. By September of 1959, the P1 prototype entered trials, leading to the Chieftain tank family.

One of the FV4202 prototypes was sent to the scrapyard. Another was converted to an ARV, which can be seen in the REME Museum of Technology. The third vehicle ended up in Bovington. Time and a harsh climate did their thing, and the vehicle currently requires a very thorough restoration. Several years ago, the Vehicle Conservation Center was built, which now houses several vehicles that used to be outside, including the FV4202. There is hope that, someday, skilled hands will find their way to this tank, which was a significant, if not well known, point in tank development. Who knows that British tanks would look like if the British would adopt a vehicle that was much smaller than the Centurion, yet equal in protection and firepower.

Let's take a closer look at the tank.

The tank did not survive to this day in a good shape. The armour skirts, similar to those on the Centurion, are gone, as are much of the fenders. Instead of its own tracks, the tank wears those from late Centurion models. A lot of the stowed equipment is gone, including the headlights and tools. Nevertheless, this is much better than a scrapped tank, but the restoration crews have their work cut out for them.

Despite many similarities, the FV4202's hull differs from that of the Centurion. Most notably, the hull is lower to the ground, allowing the front armour to be placed at a sharper angle. With the same armour thickness, the tank is much better protected than the Centurion, although 80 mm of armour in the late 1950s was not enough, even with this slope.

Like the Centurion, the FV4202's driver is positioned to the right of the tank's axis. The reduction in size did not do wonders for the comfort level, but recall that the Chieftain's driver is practically lying down. Here, the workspace is still more or less acceptable. Unlike the Centurion's two piece hatch, the FV4202's driver hatch lifts and rotates to the side. This is a much more convenient solution.

The suspension migrated from the Centurion Mk.5 with nearly no changes. Of course, "nearly" has a number of nuances. First, the amount of road wheels was reduced to 5. Second, the width of the track links decreased. The tank lost its original tracks, so the second difference is currently gone.

The FV4202 used Horstmann's suspension, which, in various forms, was used on British tanks since 1922. This design was last used on the Chieftain. Despite this rather conservative design, this suspension was satisfactory. However, the issue of removing the bogey in combat conditions was a difficult one.

The rear is similar to the Centurion. Nothing is revolutionary here, just a standard vertical plate. To the left, one can see a field telephone that has been ravaged by vandals, a typical feature on post-war British tanks.

The engine compartment roof is also similar to the Centurion's. One of its features is a multi-part design. This is a very convenient system, even a person without great physical strength can open up the engine compartment on their own. The Americans used a similar system on the Pershing and the Patton, and the Swiss used it on the Panzer 61.

The bottom of British tanks is the pinnacle of minimalism. No hatches here, only a few service openings. If the tank was knocked out, the crew would have to leave under enemy fire.

The turret of the FV4202 has much in common with the Centurion Action X, especially the front. However, there are a series of differences. For example, a "beard" under the gun mantlet, protecting the turret from jamming.

The main armament of the FV4202 is a late model 20-pounder gun. It lacks a muzzle brake, but has a fume extractor to extract gases after firing a shell. From far away, this gun looks like the L7, but close up one can see that the fume extractor shape is different.

From the top, one can see that the FV4202 turret is a combination of technical solutions. The front of the turret is similar to the Centurion Action X, and the rear is more like a regular Centurion. The roof is closer to the Action X.

Original article by Yuri Pasholok.
See detailed photographs of the tank here.

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