Long read

Britain's Struggle To Build Effective Tanks During The Second World War

In May 1945, as the war in Europe drew to a close, six prototypes of a brand new British tank were hurried to the front in the hope that they could be tested in action. The tank was the Centurion, which went on to become one of the most successful of all post-war British designs. After years of struggle, Britain had finally produced a well-armed and well protected battle tank. Sadly for many British tank soldiers of the Second World War, it was far too late. Germany was defeated, but its tanks and anti-tank guns had proved lethally superior to the very end. 

For much of the Second World War, the British Army was saddled with a succession of tanks that ranged from the bad to the barely adequate. Some were rushed into service too quickly and proved notoriously unreliable. Others spent too long in development, or only achieved a degree of usefulness after numerous modifications. Most lacked the armour to resist enemy anti-tank weapons, and nearly all were under-gunned. 

From 1943, British armoured divisions were equipped en masse with the American Sherman. This tank, though itself nearly always outclassed by the opposition, was at least reliable, adaptable and available in large numbers. It was a testament to both American industrial might and British procurement failure. Britain's belated equivalent, the Cromwell, was outmoded by the time it entered service. Its more powerful successor, the Comet, was certainly the best British tank of the war, but only saw action in the last weeks of hostilities. The Centurion would have been a game changer, but belongs to the post-war world. So why had it taken Britain so long to produce a truly effective tank?

Pre-war developments

The seeds of failure had been planted pre-war, when disarmament, economic retrenchment and the Army's deeply rooted conservatism inhibited the development of armoured forces. There was some experimentation with the deployment of mechanised formations, but no real impetus to properly incorporate tanks into the Army's structure, nor firm decisions made about doctrine or what sort of tanks were required. As a new war loomed and Britain re-armed, the cavalry finally relinquished their horses, but the Army lagged behind the other services in funding. The government's strategic priority was home defence, which meant the lion's share of resources went to the Royal Air Force, the Navy and anti-aircraft defences. There was little money available to equip a mechanised expeditionary force. These factors all had a huge impact on the development of Britain's tank force and its performance during the Second World War. 

The British had previously been pioneers in tank warfare. Tanks evolved from a need to end the deadlock on the Western Front during the First World War and proved reasonably effective even if their mobility and reliability were poor. The lumbering machines were designed to support the infantry in frontal attacks across no man's land, but there were glimpses of their future potential in August 1918 when faster Whippet tanks broke through and caused mayhem behind German lines. After the war the Army was greatly reduced in size. The Tank Corps survived, but shrank from 25 battalions to just four. It became the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. Despite the cavalry's insistence that the horse still had a role to play, the War Office was keen to see the army mechanised. A new Directorate of Mechanisation was established to work on tank design alongside the manufacturers, which at this time consisted only of Vickers Ltd and the Royal Ordnance Factory at Woolwich.

To their advocates, tanks were weapons of rapid exploitation, not to be mired in the mud and wire of the trenches. Tank specialists such as Colonel J F C Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart rejected the old First World War concept of the tank and called for lighter, faster designs suited to mobile warfare. Some saw fleets of tanks operating independently, while others thought they should form the core of mobile, combined-arms formations. In 1927 the Experimental Mechanical Force was set up to test their theories. In 1931 a permanent tank brigade was established and by 1937 two armoured divisions had been formed. The mechanisation of the Army's cavalry regiments took place on the eve of war. But even at this late stage there was still no clear policy on how armoured forces should be used. 

The standard British tanks in service for much of this period were the Vickers Mediums – ponderous, box-like vehicles armed with 3-pdr guns. Various attempts to produce replacements fell by the wayside for technical or financial reasons. Much effort was wasted on a new heavy tank, the A1 Independent, which spent ten years in development before being abandoned in 1933. By 1936 the Army had decided that it wanted three main types of tank to suit differing tactical requirements: light tanks for reconnaissance, heavily armoured ‘infantry tanks’ to support frontal attacks and fast 'cruisers' to exploit breakthroughs and take on enemy tanks. It was a decision that would bedevil British tank design and development. 

The Vickers Light Tank Mark VI entered production in 1936, and was the most numerous tank available in the run-up to war. It was small and cheap to produce, but armed only with machine guns. Light tanks were seen to have an important reconnaissance task, and were useful in the colonial policing role, but were not suitable for the main armoured force.  Tank versus tank actions required something more deadly than a machine gun and armour thick enough to resist more than a rifle bullet.

The traditionalists within the Army's ranks favoured the infantry tank, in essence a throwback to the First World War. The threat of a new European conflict meant a possible return to trench warfare, which required tanks able to cross broken ground and resist the heaviest shot and shell. The highest-ranking proponent was Major General Sir Hugh Elles, Master General of the Ordnance and the man responsible for tank procurement. Elles had led the Tank Corps during the First World War and might have been expected to promote the more radical concepts of the tank theorists. Instead he favoured the A11 Matilda – a small, heavily armoured two-man tank intended to be used en masse to support infantry attacks. It may have been cheap to produce, but its machine gun armament was seen as a major limitation and the hull was too small to fit a bigger turret. A much larger tank, the A12 Matilda was ordered in its place and entered service in 1938. This 'Matilda Senior' had the thickest armour of any tank at the time and sported a 2-pdr gun – then one of the most effective anti-tank guns in existence. It was built by the Vulcan Foundry of Warrington, the first new firm to be brought into tank production, but output was slow because it was assembled from large complex castings which demanded specialist skills.

The cruiser tank concept was much more in keeping with the doctrinal ideas of the tank specialists. The first two were the A9 and A10, both armed with the 2-pdr gun. The A10 was an up-armoured version designed to work with the infantry, and classified as a 'heavy cruiser'. Only small numbers of each were produced and both would see limited use at the beginning of the war. The most significant pre-war cruiser design originated from an official visit in 1936 to watch Soviet Army tank manoeuvres. The British delegation was impressed by the cross-country performance of the Soviet BT series tanks, which were based on a design by an American named J Walter Christie. The superb suspension system and V12 Liberty aero-engine of Christie's tank were incorporated into future British cruisers, the first of which was the A13, built by Nuffield Mechanisations & Aero. Small numbers were available in 1939.

Defeat in France

Britain began a period of major rearmament in 1937, but it was seriously weighted towards the RAF and Royal Navy. The Army placed urgent orders for the new tank designs, but there was not enough time or industrial capacity to turn them into reality. Work had to be given to a wider group of commercial companies with no prior experience of tank building, resulting in slow production and quality control issues. The vast majority of tanks delivered were the virtually useless Light Tank Mk VI. The newly established Royal Armoured Corps had only 143 infantry tanks and cruisers available in September 1939. They lacked spares and equipment, and very few crews had been trained to fight with them. 

The campaign in France in 1940 quickly revealed how ill-equipped Britain's tank force was. The cruisers and light tanks lacked the armour to withstand German anti-tank guns. The tougher Matildas were more effective, and caused brief alarm to the Germans during the Anglo-French counterattack at Arras. But such actions only delayed the inevitable and all British tanks in France were either destroyed or abandoned in the retreat. Brigadier Vyvyan Pope, tank adviser to the commander of the British Expeditionary Force Lord Gort, reported back on the consequences of poor tactics and equipment. Piecemeal attacks against concentrated German forces were bound to fail. Reliability was a major concern, with many tanks breaking down on long road marches. Most vital of all was the need for better protection and hitting power: 'We must have thicker armour on our fighting tanks and every tank must carry a cannon. The 2-pdr is good enough now, but only just. We must mount something better and put it behind 40 to 80mm of armour'.

A fundamental problem was that the width of British tanks had to keep within the limits of the standard railway gauge for transportation. And unlike those of Germany and other nations, British designs kept the fighting compartment slung between the tracks and suspension to give the tank a lower overall profile. This constrained the diameter of the turret ring, which in turn affected the size of the turret and gun that could be fitted. Weight was an issue too, and tanks had to be light enough to be shipped overseas and use standard military bridges. All of this meant that there was no way of easily upgrading existing tanks, or improving those still on the drawing board. 

Another wider factor was the complex and bureaucratic organisation behind tank design and production. The old Tank Design Department of the War Office, set up in 1931, had never had much say over the designs offered by Vickers. Its task had been to issue specifications and suggest improvements to the final products, a situation which continued as Britain re-armed and other firms were brought into tank production. In August 1939 the new Ministry of Supply took over responsibility for the supply of weapons to the army. Its key objective was to galvanise production, especially the supply of tanks, but it meant even less collaboration between producers and end users. A new Directorate of Tank Design was established, but once again, it was to act as consultant and had only limited influence over the what the manufacturers came up with.

In an attempt to co-ordinate tank development and production, a new committee – the 'Tank Board' – was set up in 1940. On it were representatives from the Ministry of Supply, the War Office and the manufacturers. At first it served only to advise and report, and there were frequent changes of chairmen, members and terms of reference. Only slowly was it given more executive powers over design and procurement. Not until the end of 1942 was tank policy properly synchronised between the War Office, Ministry of Supply and the manufacturers.

Quantity over quality

Tank supply continued to be affected by the artificial division between infantry tanks and cruisers, and the imposition of changing War Office requirements. In December 1939, in anticipation of re-fighting the First World War, the General Staff had demanded that two-thirds of production be given over to infantry tanks. A year later, after experiences in France, priority was given to the development of cruiser tanks. Light tank production had been quickly terminated and the divisional reconnaissance role taken over by armoured cars. Cruisers would equip the armoured divisions or independent armoured brigades for mobile operations, while infantry tanks were grouped in separate tank brigades for infantry support. This basic division remained in place for the rest of the war. 

Whatever the Army's operational requirements, production took precedence over design in the early years of the war. A massive increase in production was needed to make good the losses suffered in France and to provide for Britain's defence. Winston Churchill himself ordered maximum production of existing designs, whether good or bad. 1,379 tanks were built in 1940, out-stripping the Germans. One unfortunate consequence was that development of a more powerful tank gun was also delayed. Design of the new 6-pdr was already complete, but production of the 2-pdr could not be interrupted. The 6-pdr would not be fitted into a British tank until May 1942.

This focus on quantity over quality was the main reason the next two cruiser tanks, which entered service in 1941, were built in such large numbers despite very obvious flaws. Both were in the design stage at the outbreak of war and were built around the now obsolete 2-pdr. The A13 Covenanter was a low-profile, 'heavy cruiser' derivative of the original A13. Ordered off the drawing board in April 1939, it was nothing less than a spectacular failure. The tank was plagued by engine cooling problems that were never resolved and it had to be relegated to training duties. The A15 Crusader was another development of the A13. Rushed into production without adequate development trials or quality control, it quickly gained a reputation for unreliability. It was the principal British tank in the Western Desert campaign, where the sand and heat exacerbated its mechanical problems.

Infantry tanks supreme

The war in North Africa was a major testing ground where all the flaws in British tank design, organisation and tactics were brutally exposed. Initial success against the Italians was encouraging. Once again the Matilda Mk II's tough hide proved resistant to enemy weapons, but the reign of the so-called 'Queen of the Desert' was soon ended by the larger calibre anti-tank guns of the German Afrika Korps, especially the lethal 88mm. The cruisers did well at first too, racing across the desert in pursuit of fleeing Italians. But in later battles against the Germans they were decimated while making suicidal attacks against anti-tank gun screens without infantry support. The British tanks were unable to respond to this threat effectively because the 2-pdr couldn't fire a powerful enough high-explosive (HE) round. Trying to fire accurately on the move, in accordance with British doctrine, also proved impossible. German tanks wisely preferred to fire while stationary. 

The standard German tanks of the time were not significantly better, but had more effective optics and crew layouts. They could also be more easily up-gunned to keep them effective. Thus by 1942 the PzKpfw III sported a high-velocity 50mm gun, and some PzKpfw IVs were fitted with an even more effective 'long' 75mm gun. In 1942 the Crusader was also finally up-gunned with the 6pdr, but this required reducing the turret crew to two and its lack of durability remained a major problem. The Crusader's failure in particular led to Britain requesting supplies of American tanks, of which the M3 Grant and later the M4 Sherman were the most effective. Both were equipped with a dual purpose 75mm gun, which significantly increased hitting power against German tanks, and also gave British crews the chance to knock out dug-in anti-tank guns and other 'soft' targets. 

Despite the General Staff's preference for cruisers, production of infantry tanks continued in the early years of the war, and two major new designs came into service. The Valentine was a private venture by Vickers and ordered into production as war loomed. Once again, its small turret was a major drawback, but could at a pinch take the 6-pdr – provided again that one of the crew was left out. The Valentine was used both as an infantry tank and cruiser, and unusually for a British tank, was very reliable. It was built in greater numbers than any other British design, with many of these being shipped to the Soviet Union. The most famous infantry tank of the war was the A22 Churchill, which stemmed from a 1939 specification for a large First World War-type tank suitable for another bout of trench warfare. In 1940 the design was refined by Vauxhall Motors and ordered into production as urgently as possible. But the Churchill suffered reliability problems at first and needed a major programme of modifications before it was ready for action. 

By the later stages of the North African campaign the infantry tank concept had fallen from favour. Mobility was now prioritised over protection. However, the need to keep production running at full tilt meant that Matildas, Valentines and Churchills were churned out in large numbers, at the cost of other more promising tanks then in development. 8,700 of the 13,459 tanks produced in 1941 and 1942 were infantry tanks. The Churchill – due for retirement in 1943 – gained a reprieve after proving its ability to cope with the hilly terrain of Tunisia. Its thick armour also gave it an advantage and it soldiered on for the rest of the war.

From cruiser to 'universal tank'

Meanwhile, the search for a more effective cruiser tank continued. After the Battle of France, the War Office had issued a specification for a new tank with thicker armour and a turret big enough to take the 6-pdr gun. It was to be in production by the spring of 1942. A design by Nuffield Mechanisation & Aero was chosen, known as the A24 Cavalier, using the Liberty engine and many of the components from the old Crusader. Unsurprisingly, given its parentage, the Cavalier was a disaster. It was afflicted by the same lubrication and cooling problems that blighted the earlier tank, and development was eventually abandoned.

More promisingly, Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon Company had been proceeding with its own version, later designated the A27M Cromwell. It was powered by a new engine, the 600hp Meteor, which was derived from the famous Merlin aircraft engine. The Meteor promised much greater power and reliability, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production refused to make them available before its own demands had been met. It was not until late 1942 that supplies were assured. The shortage of Meteor engines meant that Leyland Motors was tasked to provide a third variant of the new tank, the A27L Centaur, fitted with an upgraded Liberty engine. The Centaur's development ran parallel to that of the Cromwell, but reliability issues meant it continually struggled in service trials. Like the Cavalier, it was never accepted as a front-line tank.

In total, 503 Cavaliers and 1,821 Centaurs were built, which represented a colossal waste of time and resources at a crucial time for British tank development. The army also tried and failed to get Valentine and Crusader production reduced to speed up the Cromwell programme. The need to avoid disrupting tank supply with abrupt factory changeovers meant that 1,650 Crusaders and 1,798 Valentines were built in 1943 alone, compared to 532 Cromwells. Only in 1944 was the new cruiser finally given priority, and other firms brought in to accelerate production. The Cromwell, effectively two years late, was only just ready in time for D-Day.

The Cromwell's complex protracted development meant that by the time it entered service it was already obsolete. Its armour compared badly to that of its German counterparts, especially the new Tiger and Panther. Ironically it was never fitted with the 6-pdr, the weapon for which it had been designed. The need for a good dual purpose gun meant it received instead the British Ordnance QF 75mm gun – effectively a 6-pdr bored out to take the US 75mm round. So despite the Cromwell's speed and reliability, which were a definite boon during the pursuit operations in the last year of the war, it was always under-gunned and unable to withstand the heaviest German weapons. 

This was all the more frustrating because a gun was now available that promised to reverse British inferiority at a stroke. Artillery development had always been well ahead of tank design in Britain and work had begun on a replacement for the 6-pdr in 1941. This new weapon, the 3-inch 17-pdr, became one of the best anti-tank guns of the war, able to penetrate the thickest armour at normal battle ranges. The first versions on modified field gun carriages were rushed out to Tunisia in May 1943 to combat the new German Tiger tank. But such was its size that it could not be fitted into any existing British tank. 

The 17-pdr's effectiveness inspired the War Office to call for a new tank to be built around it. The first proposal was the A30 Challenger – basically a stretched Cromwell with a bulky new turret. The new tank was badly designed. Its armour had to be reduced to allow for the weight of the gun, which meant it was less protected than a standard Cromwell. Other problems dogged development and it was not ready in time for D-Day. Fortunately another option had presented itself. It had been discovered that with a little ingenuity the 17-pdr could be made to fit – just – into a Sherman. The result was the Sherman Firefly, the most significant British tank adaptation of the war. The Firefly provided a desperately needed extra punch for the armoured regiments in the North-West Europe campaign, but there were never enough of them. Being based on a standard Sherman they remained very vulnerable to enemy fire, but they finally gave British tank crews the chance to outpace and out-shoot the German Panthers and Tigers that dominated the European battlefield. 

The successor to the Cromwell, and the ultimate British cruiser, was the A34 Comet. Specified in 1943 it was to have a new 75mm high-velocity (HV) gun built by Vickers. The calibre was later changed to 76.2mm and became known as the 77mm HV. This gun was more compact than the 17-pdr but just as effective, and gave the tank hitting power equal to the Panther. Inevitably, development was slow. It was the best British tank to see service, but only in the last months of the war.

By 1944, British tank development and production had matured considerably. The Department of Tank Design's influence and expertise had significantly grown and was now at last living up to its name. The requirement to produce outdated designs to keep numbers up had finally been dropped. Production was now mostly standardised on Cromwells, Comets and Churchills, and the number of firms involved reduced from 27 to 11. This was only possible because of the continuing reliance on the Sherman, 8,000 of which were imported in 1944 and 1945. Industrial techniques had improved and manufacturing processes simplified. Britain finally caught up with other nations and started to use welding instead of riveting, which made for lighter, stronger hulls and turrets. The British reputation for shoddy construction and unreliability was overturned, and the Cromwell and Comet were a world away from the Covenanter and Crusader in this regard. 

There were other projects, including wasteful plans to develop a class of heavily armoured assault tanks. The A33 Excelsior, designed to replace the Churchill, was tested in 1943 and abandoned in 1944. The A38 Valiant was an up-armoured and up-gunned Valentine that never got beyond testing in 1944. The monstrous A39 Tortoise weighed 78 tons and was an attempt to produce a tank resistant to the heaviest German guns, but the pilot models were only delivered after the war ended. 

The final significant development in Britain's wartime tank story was the A41 Centurion. It began as an idea in 1942 for a tank that combined several battlefield roles. The desert war had shown that pure 'cavalry-style' tank versus tank combat predicted by the pre-war visionaries rarely occurred. Similarly, the infantry tank concept – believed in 1939 to be the most important – was too restrictive on a modern battlefield. Experience had taught instead that the main function of the tank was to act as mobile fire support in both attack and defence. With this in mind the War Office and the Department of Tank Design looked towards a 'universal tank' that could fulfil all these functions. By 1943, the old width and weight restrictions had been abandoned, and so designers had a free rein. The new tank was to have good cross country performance, mount a 17-pdr gun and be protected by thick, sloped armour able to resist the German 88mm gun. AEC was authorised to begin work in July 1943, but the war ended before it was finished.

Too little too late?

Apart from the moderate success of the Churchill and the later cruisers, the story of British wartime tank development is a sorry one. It had got off to a bad start as a result of insufficient pre-war funding, and a lack of political and military drive to develop the armoured forces. Uncertainty over the role of tanks led to the conflicting developmental paths of infantry tanks and cruisers. Defeat in 1940 prompted the panic building of inadequate designs, which impeded the development of more promising tanks. Rushed production and design flaws led to reliability issues. External constraints meant tanks had limited capacity for future armament upgrades. From late 1942, US tanks were required in increasing numbers to make up for the deficiencies of home-grown products. Only in 1944 was British industry able to deliver a tank reasonably fit for a fast-moving battlefield, and even then it was scarcely a match for its opponents.

It can be argued that the Cromwell – and indeed the more numerous Sherman – gave Allied commanders greater operational flexibility than the Germans. The famous Tigers and Panthers may have been judged superior on the battlefield, but they were over-engineered, mechanically fragile and too few in number. Mobility and reliability were more important to the advancing Allied armies. 

But tanks like the Cromwell and the Comet should have been available much earlier. The Soviet Union showed it could be done. The T-34, produced in 1940, was arguably the best tank of the war. From the very start, the T-34 achieved that crucial balance between armour, firepower and mobility that eluded British tank designers for so long. It spurred the Germans to revitalise their own barely adequate tank force and embark on a technological arms race in which Britain quickly fell behind. British tank crews at the sharp end knew it only too well, and had every reason to bemoan the lack of protection and firepower which was a feature of their war.