Once the British army had decided that it needed a new type of tank to support the infantry it was faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem: there was virtually no money with which to design, develop, and then produce it. What rearmament money was available was prioritised to the RAF and then the Royal Navy, with the Army a distant third. And what small sums were given to the Army had to be spread around all of its arms and services, and so it became clear that any new tank would have to be built to a very limited budget, which in turn would limit its specification and therefore its combat capability. Added to this was the problem that Britain only possessed one armaments firm experienced in designing and making tanks: Vickers-Armstrong.
In 1934 suggestions were put forward that the new I-Tank required might take one of two forms. The first was a small and “inconspicuous” tank armed with a machine-gun, basically nothing more than a (not very) mobile MG pillbox. The other was a larger tank carrying a gun. Due to the lack of funds the first option was the only one that had a chance of seeing the light of day, and in October 1935, the chief designer for Vickers, Sir John Carden, produced a sketch and outline specification for a two-man tank to meet this need. The overriding characteristic was to be cheapness – there was no point in adding on bells and whistles if they made it unaffordable. Carden suggested that it might be produced for under £15,000 (still a large sum) by keeping it simple and using existing technologies and components wherever possible. (As it was it came out at around £6000 per tank). At a meeting with the Assistant Director of Mechanisation the project was given the Vickers codename Matilda. (The long-standing story is that the tank was named after a cartoon duck, which it resembled when moving. However, the first known appearance of the Disney “Matilda the Duck” was not until well after WW2 so that story can be put to bed!)

 

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The other characteristics suggested were sketchy but in the event accurate. It was to be armed with a .303 MG with 3000 rounds of ammunition, and would be capable of 5 MPH, with 8MPH to be “hoped for”! (In the event the official top speed was 5.8 mph, but when in service the drivers found a way of bypassing the Zenith speed governor in order to make it go at around 11 mph, but it remained a slow vehicle.) Greater speed was not deemed to be necessary as it would only have to keep pace with infantry troops who were advancing cross-country and “leaning on the shoulder” of a slow-moving artillery barrage. A range of 60 miles was specified, from 42 gallons of petrol housed in two square 21 gallon tanks, one either side. It was 15’ 11” long, and 7’ 8” both wide and high.
The crew was to be only two men, the commander in a small cast steel turret, where he would not only command the vehicle but also load and fire the MG. If he was also a Section Commander, he would also co-ordinate the movement of the other two tanks by the use of hand signals or flags, as to keep the cost down wireless (radio) was not to be fitted. However, when the tanks entered service, at least some were fitted with the No 11 set, reducing the internal space and adding to the commander’s burden as he had to both use and tune the set – the latter was no mean feat and not an act of war, as to do it he had to lie down in the small space behind the driver on the floor! The provision of radio cost more money but was in line with British doctrine, as it was clearly understood that armoured formations really needed wireless in order to act together and to seize fleeting opportunities. The commander’s normal seat was nothing more than a strap slung from either side of the turret walls. The driver sat in a small box compartment at the front of the tank, with a visor above his head which he raised upwards when not in action, allowing him to drive with his head out. Under fire, he would close the visor over his head and look out through either a set of simple vision slits and armoured glass prisms, or through a Vickers tank periscope. Unfortunately, this design meant that if the gun was firing horizontally to the front, the most likely scenario, the armoured jacket for the MG prevented the driver from raising and exiting through his hatch, a dangerous design flaw. Communication was a one-way affair from the commander to the driver using a rudimentary speaking tube; the latter heard the instructions using headsets but could not respond unless he shouted up to his boss!

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