Sunday 11 December 2016

Medium Tank Mk.II: Interbellum Long-Liver

The Light Tank Mk.I, later renamed to Medium Tank Mk.I, entered production in 1923 and left a notable mark in not only British tank building history, but tank building history in general. Its excellent maneuverability and armament for the time set a trend for the later part of the 1920s. Nevertheless, its lifespan was brief. Two years later, it was replaced by the most numerous tank of the 1920s: the Medium Tank Mk.II.

Evolutionary Method

The use of the Medium Tank Mk.I revealed both positive and negative sides of the vehicle. The suspension, for instance, revealed one major drawback. It migrated to the tank from a tractor which would be unlikely to spend a lot of time on the front lines. On a tank, the protruding suspension elements became a tempting target for enemy infantry, which could damage them with any weapon, even a non-anti-tank one. There were also complaints about the placement of the driver in a location that created large dead zones. Even the 3-pounder (47 mm) gun no longer satisfied the military. Here the issue was more one of future-proofing, as the gun was enough to fight the vast majority of tanks at the time.

Work on a deep modernization of the Light Tank Mk.I began in 1923. and a year later, the contract for 58 vehicles indexed Light Tank Mk.II was awarded. That name didn't last long, and the tank entered history under the name Medium Tank Mk.II. As with the Medium Tank Mk.I, the order was split up between two manufacturers. Tanks with WD numbers from T.61 to T.95 were produced by ROF Woolwich. Vickers Limited earned a smaller share of the contract: tanks with WD numbers T.96-T118.

Early production Medium Mk.II produced by ROF Woolwich.

The first mass produced Medium Tanks Mk.II began arriving in the military in 1925. The layout of the hull and turret, engine, and overall design of the suspension were left without changes. The armour was the same as on the Medium Tank Mk.IA: 6.35-8 mm.

The biggest change on the new vehicles was the shielding of the suspension. The suspension design didn't change, but now it was protected with removable screens. On one hand, they protected the suspension elements from small arms fire, on the other hand there was not a risk of jamming the suspension with mud when driving off road. If the tank was driving at temperatures around zero, the mud in the suspension could freeze and immobilize the tank. Either way, this vulnerability was never checked in combat.

The same tank from the right.

The front part of the hull was also radically changed. The upper front plate was sloped in the region of the driver's compartment, and the driver's cabin was lifted to the hull roof. The gun depression angles didn't change, but the driver's visibility increased significantly. A ventilation system container was added instead of a hatch on the left of the tank, and another air intake was added to the right near the driver's compartment.

The armament was left the same as on the Medium Tank Mk.IA, except for the gun. Instead of the OQF 3-pdr Mk.I with a 32 caliber long barrel, Vickers designed a modification with a 40 caliber long barrel. It was produced under the index 3-pdr Mk.II and was installed on new tanks. All of these novelties increased the tank's weight to 13.1 tons, but this did not change its maneuverability significantly.

Experimental droppable bridge, 1926.

Paradoxically, the Medium Tank Mk.II was a step back, as well as forward. These tanks only had 3 rollers in their turret rings, while the Medium Tank Mk.IA had 6 rollers. In addition, ROF Woolwich kept using the No.9 link track, which showed itself poorly. The ball mounts of the Hotchkiss machineguns in the turret also remained the same, while the ones on the Medium Tank Mk.IA were improved. It is not known why the old designs migrated to the Medium Tank Mk.II.

Test Bed

According to documents, the first batch of the Medium Mk.II was later increased to 96 vehicles (T.61 through T.156). Most likely, the manufacturers could not cover the entire range of WD numbers and they included tanks produced by Vickers for export (more on that later). The order for 1925 was for 19 tanks: 12 of them were built by ROF Woolwich and 7 (including one commander's tank) by Vickers. 25 more tanks were ordered for 1926 (17 ROF Woolwich and 8 Vickers). Additional WD number intervals were reserved for the Medium Tank Mk.II: T.192-T.224 and T.363-T.365.

One of the two Medium Mk.II Box Tank.

In 1926, one tank took part in an experiment with engineering equipment. A dropoff bridge for crossing obstacles was installed on the tank. It was tested on maneuvers during that same year, but by the looks of it the performance was poor, since the idea of the 18 Foot Bridge Carrier was abandoned.

Another experiment went further. In 1928, a tank with serial number T.198 was converted into a commander's tank, known as the Medium Mk.II Box Tank. This name was very appropriate for the result. Instead of a fighting compartment and turret, the tank had a large box-like structure with Vickers machineguns around the perimeter. A radio and other equipment for command was housed on the inside. The result was liked by the British and another tank was ordered. The tank with WD number T.236 was built from scratch with a Medium Tank Mk.II* chassis. An order for four more Medium Tank Mk. II Box Tanks was planned, and WD numbers T.349-T.352 were reserved, but due to the Great Tank Scandal of 1929 and the worldwide financial crisis they were never built.

Medium Tank Mk.IIA. The tank with WD number T.427 was the last to be used by the British army.

In 1928, the military made an order for a modernized version of the tank indexed Medium Tank Mk.IIA. It had many features of the Medium Tank Mk.IA*. For example, instead of the unreliable No.9 link track, the superior No. 3 link track was used. Hotchkiss machineguns in the turret were removed, leaving just the coaxial Vickers gun. Third, an armoured cover was installed over the ventilator. Finally, the tank received a commander's cupola like the Medium Tank Mk.IA*, nicknamed "bishop's crown". The contract for Medium Tanks Mk.IIA was for 10 tanks with WD numbers from T.418 to T.427. 7 tanks were built by ROF Woolwich, and tanks with numbers T.423 through T.425 were built by Vickers.

Medium Tank Mk.IIA CS on maneuvers.

As with the Medium Tank Mk.I, there was a close support variant of the Mk.II. It is not known how many were built, but at least some Medium Tanks Mk.IIA were built in the Medium Tank Mk.IIA CS variant. Most likely these were the tanks built by Vickers. Every company was supposed to have 2 tanks of this type, but very few of them were made. As with the Medium Tank Mk.II Box Tank, plans of equipping the army with Medium Tanks Mk.IIA and Medium Tanks Mk.IIA CS were cancelled after 1929.

The Medium Mark II* Special was used by the Australian forces until the early 1940s.

The last of the Medium Tank Mk.II family were tanks made for export. Australia ordered 4 tanks. Overall, the vehicles built for the Dominion were identical to the Medium Tank Mk.IIA, but they were missing the commander's cupola. These tanks, indexed Medium Mark II* Special, were built in 1929. A year later, an order of 15 tanks was made by the USSR. These tanks, known as the English Workman, are worthy of a separate article. They were almost identical to the Medium Mark II* Special, but had an additional turret machinegun and different mount for the coaxial machinegun.

Medium Tank Mk.II* on maneuvers, 1932.

While the tank was in use, a modernization analogous to that of the Medium Tank Mk.IA* was performed. The tracks were replaced with the more successful No. 3 link track and the Hotchkiss machineguns were removed from the turret, replaced by a coaxial Vickers gun. These tanks were given the index Medium Mark II*. Another modernization was performed on 44 tanks in 1932. These tanks were indexed Medium Mark II** and received large turret bustles with radios. The mass of the Medium Mark II** reached 14 tons. Some Medium Mark II* also received radios, without the turret bustle.

Medium Mark II**, the most advanced variant of the tank.

It's hard to determine the amount of Medium Tanks Mk.II that were built. There is a significant difference in reserved WD numbers and information from other sources. If one follows the reserved ranges (T.61–T.156, T.192–T.224, T.236, T.363–T.365 и T.418–T.427), the total is 142 tanks. David Nicolas arrived at other values: 58 tanks ordered in 1924, 19 in 1925, 26 in 1926, 10 in 1928, and 4 tanks for Australia and 15 for the USSR. 131 tanks in total, 19 of which were for export.

British Tankers' Classroom

The new tanks were first shown during a demonstration of new tanks for leaders of Dominions on November 13th, 1926. After that, the tanks regularly show up in videos. The Medium Tank Mk.I and Medium Tank Mk.II formed the core of the Experimental Motorized Force, formed in May of 1927 by Colonel John Fuller. The idea of a brigade sized military force armed with various tanks, tankettes, and SPGs was ahead of its time.

Unfortunately, the colonel had many obstacles in its way. The idea had many opponents in the highest ranks of the army. Another issue was the death of Sir George Thomas Beckham, Vickers' chief engineer. The disappearance of this key figure reduced the ability to adopt new tanks. The Great Tank Scandal of 1929 led to the dissolution of the group. Fuller was forced to leave the service, later becoming a known military theorist and historian.

Servicing the Medium Tank Mk.II, mid-1930s.

Despite such a poor result and radically decreased military spending as a result of the Great Depression, the career of the Medium Tank Mk.II was far from an end. The military had no alternative to it in these conditions. Even though Vickers designed superior tanks by the early 1930s, it's hard to say that the Medium Tank Mk.II was greatly inferior. The tank was undemanding, comfortable, and long-lasting. With these tanks, the army survived its hardest 5 years where the miserly budget all but stopped British tank development.

During service, the tanks gradually changed. Towards the end of the service, the tanks received massive headlight covers for night driving. These covers were first tested on the second Medium Mk.II Box tank, and by the late 1930s they could be found on every Medium Mk.I and Mk.II.

Tank from the 6th battalion of the Royal Tank Corps covered in asbestos sheets.

The Medium Tank Mk.II became the first British tank of the new interbellum generation that left the territory of the Commonwealth. Aside from exports, these tanks reached North Africa. In the mid 1930s, the 6th battalion of the Royal Tank Corps in Egypt received five Medium Tanks Mk.II*. To reduce high temperatures that led to overheating, the tank was covered in asbestos from the outside. Later, the battalion received the improved Medium Tanks Mk.II**. These tanks were painted in two colour camouflage. Curiously, the base colour was silver, over which black stripes were applied. These tanks also received tropical equipment.

Medium Tank Mk.II** in Egypt, late 1930s.

The Medium Tanks Mk.I and Mk.II were phased out from service in 1938-39. The start of the Second World War forced the British to bring these tanks back into action. It's easy to explain this decision: only 79 more or less modern cruiser tanks were ready by September 1st, 1939. Thousands of new tankers were needed for the war, and the new tanks were scarce and still had teething problems. As a result, the old guard had to stay for a few more years, serving as classrooms for another generation. They were only finally written off when the military was saturated with new tanks.

Medium Tank Mk.II** that burned up during a march from Siwa to Mersa Matruh, June of 1942.

The Medium Tank Mk.II was the only mass production interbellum British tank to see battle. This honour befell three tanks of the 6th battalion. When Italy entered the war in 1940, the battalion's tank were transferred to the Siwa oasis at the border of Libya and Egypt, where they were used as immobile bunkers. These tanks received characteristic additional armour around the gun mount.

In 1942, then the German offensive towards Mersa Matruh began, it was decided that the tanks would be moved there. During the march, one tank caught fire and burned out completely. Many Africa Corps soldiers and officers would later pose for photos with it. The other two tanks reached Mersa Matruh and were dug into the sand. The Germans captured them in this state, but never used them due to the degree of wear and lack of ammunition.

Mersa Matruh didn't stay in German hands for long. By the end of 1942, the city was British once more. The tanks returned with it, but they were never used again. A photograph of American soldiers posing next to them exists. Most likely, one of them ended up in the tank museum at Aberdeen. One Medium Tank Mk.II* survives to this day. This tank is kept in working order by the Bovington Tank Museum. A Medium Mark II* Special was also preserved in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps Memorial and Army Tank Museum.

Original article by Yuri Pasholok.

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