British Tanks of World War II
Created | Updated Jul 30, 2012
While World War One saw the first use of the tank as a weapon of war, it was during World War Two that the tank soon became a dominant force on the battlefield. The British, American, German and Russian armies all had different approaches to tanks and tank warfare, each with their fair share of successes and failures. This Entry looks at how the British army developed their 'armoured brigades', and the various types of tanks available to them in during World War Two.
The British army were pioneers in tank combat, but by 1939 it could be argued they were behind the times in terms of strategy and tactics, their methods based on the trench warfare of World War One. According to the theories of Captain BH Liddell Hart and Major-General Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart, they split their tank force into two groups; Infantry tanks and Cruiser tanks.
Infantry tanks were a continuation of the World War One tank, heavily armoured and designed to accompany an advancing infantry unit (so were very slow). Once the infantry tanks had punched through an enemy line, lighter and faster cruiser tanks would be let loose to disrupt supply lines.
The main problem with this strategy however, was that the British infantry tanks were just too slow and the cruisers of the time were vulnerable, and often mechanically unreliable. Come 1940, most of the British armour had been abandoned in France when the Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk, but this encouraged new designs. By the end of the war the increase in speed of the infantry tanks, and the increased armour of the cruisers, meant that there was little difference between the two classes of British tank.
Pounds and Millimetres?
Before we go on, we should deal with one of the confusing things about the British army's approach to big guns. Some guns were labelled in pounds (harking back to the traditions of cannons) or by the weight of their shells, and others by their calibre in millimetres. At the start of the war, most British tanks were equipped with 2-pounder (40mm) guns which, while able to penetrate contemporary German armour, was limited by the army's refusal to issue high explosive rounds for dealing with non-armoured targets (the reasoning was that they contained so little explosive that it would not be worth while).
Eventually 6-pounder (57mm) guns were used, and these could deal with pretty much anything but head on attacks on the German Tiger and Panther tanks - thanks to their special armour piecing rounds. As the war progressed many British tanks were equipped with 75mm guns from American Sherman tanks. These had better performance using high explosive or smoke ammunition, but could not match the 6-pounder against armour. Then the 17-pounder (76.2mm) was developed, becoming the best British gun of the war - able to deal with almost any armour put up against it.
Infantry tanks, as stated, were developed for use alongside footsoldiers. The following are the main types used by the British army.
Matilda Mk I
This little tank was one of the infantry tanks available to the British army at the start of the war. It was designed by Vickers-Armstrong in 1935 to be used in a purely supporting role by infantry units. It had decent armour, but its only weapon was a machine gun. A Ford V8 engine dragged this 11-ton machine to a top speed of 8mph (miles per hour). While the main body of the tank, and its turret were well protected from contemporary anti-tank guns, its tracks were incredibly exposed and an obvious weak-point. The Matilda Mk I saw some service in northern France, but after Dunkirk, it was removed from active service, the remaining Mk I's were used mostly for training purposes.
Matilda Mk II
Despite the name, this was not an update to the Matilda Mk I - it was a totally different tank. It was designed as an infantry tank by the Royal Armoury in Woolwich and built by a number of companies including Vulcan Foundary, Fowler and Ruston & Hornsby. At 27 tons with 78mm of armour, this was an incredibly well protected tank. Armed with a 2-pounder gun, it initially wreaked havoc in northern France and North Africa, right up until the Germans started using the infamous 88mm anti-aircraft guns against British armour. In North Africa, the sand and poor ground also limited the Matilda Mk II to a speed of around 8mph, which meant that enemy tanks could outflank it with ease.
Another failing was that the 2-pounder gun was limited by the lack of a high-explosive shell. The British army had such shells available, but it was decided not to issue them to tank crews because they decided that there was too little explosive in the shell to be effective1. Gradually the Germans started producing tanks with ever more powerful guns, meaning the Matilda Mk II was vulnerable on the battlefield. Limitations of the design meant that bigger guns could not be fitted to the turret, and its expensive production costs meant that the Matilda Mk II was phased out of the European theatre. However, it did see use with the Russian and the Australian armies in various other theatres of war.
This was a private design by Vickers-Armstrong, an attempt to combine the chassis and weight of a cruiser with the armour of an infantry tank. The Valentine was rushed into production after Dunkirk, and became the most widely produced British tank of the war. At 15 tons it was light, but it was almost as well armoured as the Matilda Mk II. It had less powerful engines so was limited to a top speed of about 15mph, and the early versions with cramped crew accommodation, were not as accomplished as the Matilda Mk II, but it was much easier to produce. It was also a lot smaller, so was a much harder target to hit. The Valentine suffered from the same limitations as the Matilda Mk II with its 2-pounder gun, and by the time versions that had a 6-pounder or a 75mm gun were available, better tanks had been produced. It saw service in North Africa, and with the Red Army, however by D-Day it had been superseded by other tanks in the British army.
The Churchill was a design called for before the start of the war to replace the Valentine and Matilda Mk II. As an infantry tank, it had a massive amount of armour, up to 102mm in some places, and it weighed in at over 38 tons. It was, like most infantry tanks designed before combat took place, underpowered. The Bedford engine powered this Vauxhall-built machine to a top speed of 15mph. The first version was armed with a 2-pounder gun, but in an effort to give it high explosive capability, it had a 3-inch Howitzer mounted on the hull. This was of limited use because the whole tank had to be manoeuvred to aim the Howitzer. The limitations of this slow, unreliable, under-gunned tank were shown in the Dieppe Raid. Its future was only secured by the Mk III.
The Mk III fixed some of the reliability issues and replaced the 2-pounder gun with a 6-pounder (although some crews replaced the 6-pounder with 75mm guns from destroyed Sherman tanks. The 75mm was not as good an anti-tank weapon, but it had better all round performance). The 6-pounder gun was more than a match for most enemy tanks, but later in the war, armed with the 75mm gun, the Churchill was seriously outclassed in terms of fire-power. As new versions of the Churchill appeared, the armour got thicker and thicker, up to 152mm. This meant the tank could survive direct hits from most enemy guns. While the armour increased and the tank got heavier, the engines remained the same, leading to the later versions being capable of a top speed of only about 12mph.
One of the most deadly versions of the Churchill was nicknamed 'the Black Prince', which used a 17-pounder gun. By the time this tank came out, there were better designs available to the British army, so few were produced. However, the Churchill was also used as the basis for a range of 'specialist tanks' known as Hobart's Funnies. There was a flamethrower version which towed its fuel in an armoured trailer, and a ramp carrier which could be driven over by other vehicles. The engineering version had a huge mortar that could be used to level heavy fortifications and it could also be adapted for many other tasks including mine clearing, path laying, ditch filling and bridge laying.
Cruiser tanks were designed with speed and ferocity in mind. The following are the main British types.
A13 Mk I and Mk II (Cruiser Mk III & Mk IV)
These tanks were the cruiser tanks that were available to the British army at the start of the war. Both of these were very lightly armoured and had a 2-pounder gun. The 340hp engines could get them up to a speed of 30mph. Their major advantage was the use of the Christie suspension system which allowed them to cross country at much higher speeds than previous cruisers. Because of their limited armour, however, most of these were withdrawn from active combat as soon as better tanks were available.
A13 Mk III Covenanter
It would be fair to describe this tank as a cock-up. Heavier and better armed than the Cruiser Mk III and Mk IV, this was the first of the British cruiser tanks to have a proper name. It had a sleek design that gave it a low profile, and so was more difficult target to hit, but the 'novel' design led to major problems with operating the tank in combat. The engine had overheating problems because of the radiators being moved to the front of the hull, and this meant that it would be no use in the deserts of North Africa. By the time the war had returned to Europe, the Covenanter was hopelessly outclassed by the German tanks. Around 1,500 Covenanters were built, however apart from the bridge-laying versions, very few of them ever left the British Isles and most were scrapped.
This was the first effective British cruiser tank. The designers at the Nuffield Organisation were so impressed by the Russian BT Tanks that ran on Christie suspension, they bought a chassis and based their design on that. After the inadequacies of the Covenanter were revealed, the Crusader was built, arriving with units by 1940. Coming in at 20 tons with armour of 26mm, it was a massive advancement over previous British tanks. It saw service in North Africa where it was the fastest tank on the battlefield, and with the 2-pounder it also was a reasonable tank-killer. The Germans soon wised up to the Crusader and more importantly, the British army's refusal to equip tanks with the high explosive shell for the 2-pounder gun. They lured Crusaders to entrenched guns that were not vulnerable to the Crusader's armour-piecing shells. While many Crusaders served in North Africa, they were soon replaced by American Grants and Shermans, and by newer British tanks in the role of a main battle tank. They were relegated to specialist roles such as gun-towing, mine-clearing and recovery vehicles.
It was clear that to be able to cope with the German tanks, cruiser tanks would need more powerful guns and better armour. To be able to perform their desired role as cruiser tanks, they would also need to maintain the high top speed of previous designs. The engine for the Cromwell, with its 76mm gun and 76mm armour, was a version of the British engineering marvel, the Rolls-Royce Merlin. Called the Meteor, it was detuned to 600hp, enough to get the Cromwell up to a top speed of 40mph, the fastest British tank of the war, and because Rolls-Royce was busy with the Merlin for the Royal Air Force, Rover got to build the Meteor engine2. Due to the limitations of the Christie suspension however, Cromwell's could only get up to a speed of about 32mph (which was still better than most other contemporaries), and Cromwell crews were able to outflank their enemies.
A big problem with the design of the Cromwell though was that it was very upright, with none of the armour sloping. Sloped armour maximises the resistance, so tanks like the Sherman were better protected in battle. The actual profile of the tank was lower than the Sherman though, which counteracted the lack of sloped defence as such. By the time D-Day came around, all Cromwell's had 76mm guns, those built with 6-pounders having been upgraded. Many Cromwell crews found that the tanks fitted with the 6-pounder or 17-pounder guns had a much better anti-tank performance too.
This was, in effect, a Cromwell with a 17-pounder gun. To fit the bigger gun a new turret had to be made, which was rather ungainly. The increased weight of the gun also meant that armour had to be reduced. Due to a lack of foresight, Challengers didn't have the equipment to allow them to land at D-Day and had to wait until there were ports capable of unloading them. While it gave impressive tank busting performance, the 17-pounder version of the Sherman tank, the 'Firefly', was cheaper to produce - so Challenger production was stopped at 200 tanks.
The last British tank to see service in World War Two is generally regarded as the best. Again, it was based on the Cromwell with a shortened, lower velocity 17-pounder gun (77mm), improved armour and various other features including an electric motor for moving the turret. It was reliable, fast and well armed, and favoured by its crews. Again, it was powered by the Meteor engine, as aeroplane engines provided the best combination of power and lightness, enabling the 33 ton Comet to travel at over 30mph.
When it arrived with crews in the late autumn of 1944, it was hoped that the power and accuracy of the Comet's gun would give British crews the advantage over the German Tigers and Panthers. Just as the crews were getting their new tanks, the Germans launched a major offensive - to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Crews went back to their old tanks for the oncoming battle, as they were not trained in the use of the Comet, however it did feature in the crossings of the Rhine.
At the end of the war, the Americans, British and Russians held a parade to show off their military hardware. The Comet was the British pride and joy3, however, it was completely overshadowed by the massive Russian JS-3 tank. It may have been rendered obsolete by this supertank, but the Comet still saw service in the Korean War.
The tank destroyer is a design of armoured vehicle made for the sole purpose of disabling other tanks. While the type formed a large part of the German and American armies, the British army tended not to build them in large numbers - so few designs were produced.
The Archer was a large, 17-pounder gun stuck facing over the rear of a Valentine chassis. The gun was mounted on an armoured box instead of a turret. It had the advantage that it could wait in ambush, fire off a few rounds then drive off forwards without having to turn around. Of course, the driver had to be somewhere other than his seat because of the gun recoil. Like many tank destroyers, the Archer had an open top. Because it wasn't classified as a 'tank', but rather a self-propelled gun, it was assigned to Royal Artillery units.
Being just a 6-pounder gun stuck on the back of a lorry, this doesn't really need to go into an Entry about tanks, so we'll get it over with quickly. It saw service in North Africa and was retired soon afterwards.
Self-propelled guns are artillery pieces stuck on tank bodies. The British army deployed them behind the frontline to provide supporting fire.
This was an Anglo-Canadian design based on a Canadian version of an American tank. The Sexton I was a 25-pounder Howitzer mounted on the chassis of a Ram tank, the Canadian version of the M3 Grant. The Sexton II was based on the Canadian version of the Sherman, the Grizzly. Over 2,000 Sextons were made from 1943 onwards, seeing service in northern Europe.
The Bishop was a 25-pounder mounted on a Valentine chassis using an open topped armoured box. The box mounting limited the angle the gun could be fired through, reducing the range. This, combined with the sluggishness of the Valentine tank it was based on, meant that it was not popular and only saw service in North Africa and Italy.
Light tanks are, as their name suggests, lightweight armoured vehicles. British light tanks, mostly based on designs by the Vickers company, weigh in around the 6-ton mark. They are not heavily armoured, providing protection against small arms fire at best. Armament normally consisted of Vickers machine guns. Reasonably quick and lightly armed, they were used mainly for scouting and alongside infantry. Light Tanks did not feature that much in British army plans.
The Mk VII Light Tank, was the last of the British light tank designs. The 7.5 ton machine was crewed by three people and had a 2-pounder gun. It could be loaded into a Hamilcar glider and therefore support airborne attacks. It saw service at D-Day, the Rhine crossings and the Battle for Madagascar.
US Tanks in service with the British army
In 1939, the British built 969 tanks. This increased to 1,399 in 1940, then 4,841 in 1941, up to 8,611 in 1942 and then 7,476 in 1943. While this construction outstripped German tank production, it wasn't enough, especially when faced with superior German technology. The Lend-Lease act with America meant that the US supplied arms to the British4. US Tank production was 4,052 units in 1941, rising to 24,997 in 1942, 29,497 in 1943 and 17,565 in 1944. The new equipment coming over from America meant that the UK could switch production in its factories. While US tanks designs may not have been better than the British designs, and certainly poorer than the German tanks, they were built in such high numbers that any advantages the Germans had were overcome by sheer strength in numbers.
The following are some of the main US tanks in use by the British army during World War Two.
The UK specification (the top machine gun was removed) of the M3 Lee Medium Tank. It had a 75mm gun mounted in the hull and a 37mm gun in the turret. It was only a stop-gap design until the M4 was ready in numbers. The fire-power of two guns was countered by the limited range of movement of the hull mounted 75mm gun.
The mainstay of the allied tank force, over 17,000 were provided to the British army. It was a good tank with reasonable armament and a good turn of speed, but more important was its ability to be built quickly and cheaply. Many British Shermans were re-gunned with the 17-pounder to become Sherman Fireflies. These were some of the only allied tanks that could take on the better German designs. Because of this, they were the first targets of any German tank commander, so crews of Fireflies tried many different ways of disguising the obvious outline of their large gun.
A 105mm self-propelled Howitzer. It was used by a number of units, but it took different ammunition to the rest of the British Artillery, and was replaced by the Sexton when that was available in numbers.
17-pdr SP. Achilles
A version of the M10 Wolverine Tank Destroyer, with a 17-pounder gun instead of the 76.2mm gun of the American version.
At the start of the Second World War, British tanks were quite formidable, but were designed to meet the tactical requirements of the First World War. Until the Cromwell and Crusader Tanks were manufactured, there were no real all round designs that combined speed and fire-power, like the German Panzers. While British tanks were often better armoured, or faster, than their Axis rivals, until the later designs, they were always out-gunned. The 2-pounder, without high explosive rounds, was ineffective against infantry and concealed field guns, making the tank vulnerable to a clued-up enemy. Even the 6-pounder was not that effective against the two main German battle tanks of later years, the Panther and Tiger. And while British tanks didn't tend to have the sloped armour that was introduced by other designs, they were not as over-engineered as their German counterparts, enabling them to be built in larger numbers. This meant that the British tank was not only a welcome sight on a battlefield, there were always plenty to go around - a much sought after asset during the war.