Before the start of the Second World War, British armoured doctrine was in a terrible muddle.
Opinion had been divided between the proponents of the tank who saw it as the weapon of break-in, using it as an infantry support weapon, and those who saw it as the weapon of break-out, using it to restore mobility and to destroy the enemy’s forces behind the frontline. In many ways it was a division between those who saw the tank solely through the prism of the experience of the First World War, and those who saw it a decisive weapon for the future. Britain was also conscious of the continuing requirements for imperial policing, in which small tanks and armoured cars had already proved their worth. As a consequence, it was decided that Britain needed three different classes of tanks: Light tanks for the policing role that could also be used for reconnaissance duties in a general war; fast and lightly armoured Cruiser tanks for break-out and exploitation, and heavily armoured but slow Infantry tanks for the break-in.
Unfortunately, what the policy makers had failed to realise was that the use of tanks in a future war would be very different from the experience of WW1: it would prove to be impossible to neatly segregate the battlefield in both time and space to suit the three different types of tanks, and that what was required was a single tank that was heavily armoured enough to support the infantry, but also fast and reliable enough to conduct more mobile operations, including break-out and pursuit. In time – well after the war - this would come to be called the Main Battle Tank, and would be supported by a host of other specialised armoured vehicles, including Armoured Personnel Carriers, reconnaissance tanks, and not least, a range of engineering variants. It should be noted at this point that Germany started the war with a similar method of classifying tanks, but realised quicker than Britain that the artificial division was unhelpful on the battlefield and crucially, was faster and more successful at doing something about it.
It can of course be argued that in Britain the technology of 1939 was not capable of producing such a tank, but as it was not attempted until around 1943, it is difficult to know for certain. What is clear is that Britain went to war with a small fleet of different tanks divided artificially into the three very separate classes, and this book will look at one of those classes, the Infantry Tank. In particular, whilst mentioning briefly some of the variants and failed designs in that class, we shall concentrate on the four main types that saw battlefield service as Infantry tanks (sometimes called I-Tanks): the Matilda I, the Matilda II, the Valentine, and the Churchill. These were known officially as the Infantry Tanks Marks I to IV respectively, and this designation reflects the order in which they were designed, produced, and entered service. They were the basis of many experimental and specialised variants, but due to space considerations we shall concern ourselves here mainly with the major tank versions.
Despite the artificial compartmentalisation of British tanks that was eventually to be exposed as a dreadful mistake, there is no doubt that all these tanks, and particularly the last three, performed sterling service in different ways during the conflict; all saw combat, which is more than can be said for many of the designs produced in the Cruiser class, particularly the Covenanter and Cavalier. None were without their faults, and the crews seem to have operated them with a mixture of admiration and exasperation, but all contributed to final victory and are thus deserving of recognition. It should be noted that this book is intended to serve as a “primer”, and space precludes an expert discussion on every aspect of every mark of each tank discussed – some 25 in all! We shall start with the first, least known and least successful of the four, the Infantry Tank Mark 1 or Matilda.
A11 Infantry Tank Mk I Matilda
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!)
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!