The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


FV 201 Conqueror Tank

One of the most important decisions in the designing of a tank is to settle the relative priority to be given to the competing demands of gun and armor. It is all a question of weight. If it is decided to mount a bigger gun, of course it weighs more and its ammunition is bigger and heavier. Since there is a maximum weight which the chassis can carry, the extra weight of the gun has to be deducted from the weight available for armour. What is more, the bigger gun has a longer recoil inside the turret, which means that the turret must be enlarged. In order to cover the larger turret with armour, without increasing the total weight of the tank, the thickness of the armor has to be reduced. Alternatively designers have to start all over again and build a bigger and heavier chassis capable of carrying more weight. The size and weight of tanks was ultimately governed by the strength of the bridges and the width of railway tracks, over which they had to travel.

There was a need for a small number of very heavily armored assault tanks, which would be held in reserve and used for special operations. Their role would be to deal with strongly defended positions which were holding up the advance of troops. In the design of these tanks, armored protection should have overriding priority. Speed was of less consequence, and even the gun was of secondary importance. In 1943 the Ministry of Supply ordered, as an experiment, the manufacture of two or three extra heavy tanks of this kind, to gain experience. Duncan Sandys gave this type the name of "Tortoise" so as to impress upon the designers that it was to be a slow-moving vehicle with a thick shell.

The main types of tank introduced into British Army service since 1945 were the Charioteer, a tank destroyer introduced in 1953; the Conqueror, a heavy tank destroyer introduced in 1953; the Centurion, a Main Battle Ttank introduced in 1945, and the Chieftain Main Battle Tank introduced in 1966. Like the contemporary American M103, the 65-ton British Conqueror tank was designed to counter Soviet heavies such as the Josef Stalin tank or the T-10. For hitting power and impregnability the Centurion had to be partly replaced by the Conqueror, which, however, weighed several tons more, with all the accruing disadvantages of additional weight.

The Conqueror’s introduction into, and retention in service was largely down to the Soviets keeping in service the JS3/T10 series of heavy tanks, armed with the 122 mm guns at a time when the principal British tank, Centurion, was only armed with a 20 pounder (83.4mm) gun. To add to this situation, during the Hungarian uprising of 1956 a T54 was diverted into the British Embassy compound and hastily examined before return to its owners. The armor thickness was drastically overestimated.

Originally the FV200 series was supposed to be a new universal or main battle tank, but in the event Conqueror (FV214) saw service essentially as a tank destroyer, the idea being to issue them as a back-up to Centurion units. With the number of changes introduced and procrastination encountered during the procurement stage, it was a miracle the tank entered service at all.

One of the most impressive tanks ever built, the FV214 Conqueror was armed with a 120mm American Gun and with very heavy armour. This 65 Ton vehicle was built in Scotland at ROF Dalmuir on the River Clyde. Despite its' size and weight, Conqueror was more mobile than Centurion due to low ground pressure from its' very wide tracks, and massive power from the fuel injected Meteor engine. Across rough ground Conqueror was faster! Conqueror served along with Centurion for many years, and was designed to 'deal with' the Soviet JS3/T10 heavy tanks, using a combination of massive gun and advanced fire control systems.

The 65 ton Conqueror was the heavy tank counterpart to the “Universal Tank” (MBT) Centurion. It featured heavier armor and a US designed 120mm gun [which left much to be desired]. Main armament on the FV 214 Conqueror heavy tank is a 4.72 inch (120mm) gun. Secondary armament consists of two 0.3 inch (7.62mm) machine guns - one coaxial and one on the commander's cupola - and six pairs of smoke dischargers. The Conqueror weighed 63 tons (66,044 kg) and had a maximum armor thickness of 7.01 inches (178mm) thick. It featured a Horstmann suspension, consisting of four units on each side of the tank, each unit having a pair of road wheels. There are four track return rollers. The idler is at the front and the drive sprocket is at the rear.

A four man crew, consisting of driver, commander, gunner and loader, operates the FV214. The driver sits in the front of the hull on the right. Some ammunition is stored on his left. The commander, gunner and loader sit in the turret. A fireproof bulkhead separated the fighting compartment from the engine and transmission, which was located in the back of the hull.

The Conqueror heavy tank was hard to maintain, and there were problems with its electrical system. Because it was so heavy, it was difficult to maneuver and could not cross some bridges. The Conqueror suffered reliability and mobility problems, and although it saw service in West Germany, it never saw combat. The Conqueror was generally seen as a bit of the black sheep of post war British tank design.

After plenty of development difficulties, by 1955 the Conqueror was beginning to be issued to the Army. Twenty Mark 1 and 165 Mark 2 Conquerors were built including conversions of Caernavon MkIIs. By 1957 the Conqueror tank was on its field trials with units and, in the UK Government's opinion, was capable of defeating the heaviest known tank, but it was the last of the heavy tanks which Britain would. There were under development an anti-tank guided weapon which should, if all goes well, remove the heavy tank from the battlefield. Medium tanks, on the other hand, would he required for some time yet to provide the close support for infantry which the guided weapon cannot give.

Production continued until 1959. The decision to transfer the Royal Ordnance Factory, at Dalmuir to Babcock and Wilcox was announced on 15 July 1958. By 1958 the labor force was engaged mainly on the production of Conqueror tanks. This work was completed by the end of the year. As the tanks came off the line, three were no military orders to replace them. Employment can, therefore, be maintained only by gradually introducing the new work that the factory will eventually be employed on. The aim of the Babcock and Wilcox management was to introduce new work so as to dovetail with the rundown of the Service orders. With the big reductions in the size of the Armed Forces it was clear that the requirements of the Services for conventional armaments, for which this factory was equipped, would be very much smaller than they have been since the time of the Korean rearmament program.

By early 1959 the equipment of armored regiments with Centurion and Conqueror tanks was completed. Heavier armor and a better gun are being provided for the Centurion which would eventually be replaced by a new medium tank now under development. The heavy tank, the Conqueror, would not be replaced. Critics argued that the heavy tank, like the battleship, had a future which was also highly questionable, as it was far too slow and was a very easy target. It was said the Conqueror tanks were not able to move in ploughed-up areas unless they can keep to the roads.

In the Army Estimates debate in 1957 it was said that, if all went well, the anti-tank guided missile known by the name of Orange William would remove the heavy tank from the battlefield. There were two reasons which led the Government to cancel Orange William in 1960. The first was that, as its development proceeded, it became clear that if it was to meet the Staff requirement it would have to be of such an order of complexity as to make it unsuitable as a front-line weapon. Yhe powerful anti-tank guided missile Malkara gave the Strategic Reserve an air-portable weapon system said to be capable of defeating the heaviest enemy tank.

The second factor was that as the development of the new main battle tank and its 105 mm. tank gun proceeded, it became clear that it would be able to deal with any tank which, so far as could be seen, was likely to be met on the battlefield. The Chieftain tank, considering its performance and its fire-power, was not a heavy tank. It combined much more devastating fire-power than that of the Conqueror heavy tank, with the weight and mobility of a medium tank of the Centurion class.

It might reasonably be supposed that a demand for a new tank with the armor and gun power of the Conqueror, combining the nimbleness of the Centurion and less than the Centurion's weight, would require the work of a wizard. It seemed to some that the staff of the Armoured Flighting Vehicle Research Station at Chobham were little short of technical wizards. For such a tank had evolved in the Chieftain, which by 1962 had been through rigorous trials and seemed to have very few, and only a very few, teething troubles still remaining. The Conqueror was taken out of service in 1966.

Many histories dismiss Conqueror as being “too big, heavy, noisy and difficult to maintain”. However, examination of the facts does not entirely bear this out. At 65 tons and armed with a 120mm gun the basic dimensions, if not the technology, of the Conqueror were roughly the same as a modern MBT, although Conqueror entered service in 1955. There were a couple of annoying faults with the design, including the Mollins device for the shell case ejection and the device for stabilising the gun on the move which took the gunner several seconds to get control of the gun back when halted. (As a back up tank Conqueror was not designed to fire on the move). Given a fraction of the time and money expended on other designs neither of these problems were insurmountable and despite them the tank was popular with many of the crews who served on it.

The 120mm gun outranged the JS3 by a very comfortable margin, and on the straight and level the vehicle was actually faster than Centurion, which it was designed to support. The design of the fire control turret was also ahead of its time. Overall, given adequate maintenance and a motivated crew, Conqueror was an impressive vehicle.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 25-07-2016 18:29:00 ZULU