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The British Army in World War II

By 1945 Britain had failed to produce any tank truely fit to fight the Germans after more than five years of war. When the war began, the British Army had, as so-called armored units, three regular cavalry regiments, and three battalions of the Royal Tank Regiment. The British Army had three types of tanks. Light tanks, weighing only a few tons, were very lightly armored and mounted only machine guns. The Matilda tanks were "I" tanks intended to accompany infantry into battle. They were heavily armored (3 1/2 inches), heavy (13 tons), and slow (15 MPH). They carried a 40mm gun (2 pounder). Despite their slow speed, they were widely used. However, they could be killed by the German 88mm gun or the Panzer III with long barrel 50mm gun. The British Cruiser and Crusader series tanks were faster tanks with top speeds of 25 to 30 MPH. The Cruisers carried 40mm guns while the later Crusader model carried a 57mm gun. Because these tanks had only 14mm of armor, they could only engage other tanks with similar capabilities, such as the Panzer III with short barrel 50mm gun or Panzer IV with short barrel 75mm gun.

In October, 1939, the UK had 200 light tanks of the Mark VI series, that is, a 5-ton tank, very lightly armored and mounting two machine guns. Apart from light tanks armed with machine guns, there were only 117 Cruisers of Marks I and III and 90 infantry tanks and Marks I and II. The only British tanks mounting more than a machine gun which fought in France, in battles in which the German deployed between four and five thousand tanks, were 23 Mark II infantry tanks and 158 Cruisers of Marks I, II and III, but these latter tanks fought only in the concluding phases of the battle south of the Somme. Even this petty equipment was lost. Other armored units were in the course of development, but their equipment was naturally even less than that of these armored units.

The Germans had decided before the war and maintained their decision to form for tactical purposes one standard armored formation. Into that formation they put all their types of tanks, the B.K.W.2, the B.K.W.3 and the B.K.W.4. The British Army, rightly or wrongly, decided that that was not necessarily the soundest method of employing tanks, and had two formations of tanks - the armoured divisions and the tank brigades. The armoured division was made up in general of a much lighter type of tank, and the purpose and usage of that division was for what was called "soft spot tactics." That in itself explains that these tanks are not necessarily either armored or had weapons which are comparable with the heaviest and strongest tank in the standard German formation, that is to say, the Mark IV. The German Mark IV tank, mounting the 76-mm. gun and firing a 13-pound shell, was known of before the war. A British tank equipped with a 6-pounder gun, with an effective range of 800 to 1,000 yards, was not the real answer to the Mark IV, which fired a 13-pounder shot and has an effective range of 2,000 to 3,000 yards.

The UK had, in the country at the time of Dunkirk, only 200 light tanks armed with machine guns and 50 infantry tanks. It was clear, therefore, to the Government at that time, that every effort must be concentrated on producing some weapons against the invasion of the country, or Britain would have been strangled, and no production could be interrupted in order to start the testing and manufacture of new types. Of course, everyone connected with the problem, the Cabinet, the General Staff and the Ministry of Supply, were aware that Britain must develop a tank with heavier armor and heavier guns for the future. But present needs had to come first or Britain would have gone under. The whole field Army had to be reorganised and expanded and re-equipped from zero.

Britain built up a tank policy under the pressure of the immediate need for tanks, and that urgency and immediate need for tanks lasted well through 1941. Besides building up to safeguard the country against the very serious menace of invasion, Britain had during 1941 to supply complements for the Middle East, and also in the autumn 1941 undertook a commitment to Russia of very considerable proportions. Two infantry tanks, the Matilda and the Valentine, had adaptations and were greatly improved, and were reliable tanks. The tanks which were sent to Russia gave excellent service under all the conditions of the Russian campaign, and they gave excellent service in Libya as well.

At the beginning of 1942 there were three types of infantry tanks in production, known as the infantry two, three and four. Types two and three are popularly known as "Matildas" and "Valentines." There are two types of cruiser tanks, known as cruisers five and six, but more popularly known as "Covenanters" and "Crusaders."

The UK concentrated existing plants and existing capacity on the production of types in which admittedly there were known defects and at the same time started to develop new manufacturing capacity to produce new types, although they too had no background of proved mechanical experience behind them. Always bearing in mind the need for serviceable tanks, even if they had a lower mileage of reliability than tanks developed at greater leisure, the Government first undertook the production of the A.22, sometimes known as the "Churchill." This tank, which was put into production from the drawing board, is, in the opinion of all those who have had experience of it, an excellent fighting vehicle. The arrangement of the guns and turret are highly suitable for fighting. But it did not have the reliability which could have been obtained if further time had been possible in its development. The first production had numerous defects, and it even appeared from the first few put out that failure of the type might have to be faced.

But by mid-1942 these had been largely eliminated. It would run without major repairs about half the distance which a perfect tank would run. The figures are about 750 miles, without major repairs, compared with 1,500 miles. No doubt a higher rate of replacement, and consequently of reserves, would have to be provided behind this tank. But there is no doubt about the correctness of the decision to put this amount into production. Numbers had to be the first consideration, something to fight with. If the Government had insisted on maximum reliability, it might have had one half or one quarter of the tanks that it had, and although it is true that they would have been reliable ever greater distances, the account still stands heavily in favor of the numbers as against the mileage. Urgency and crisis are the foes of reliability and perfect mechanical design. The first of the A.22's were, of course, equipped with the 2-pounder gun, for the reason that there were no 6-pounder guns to put in them, but these tanks were soon being armed with a 6-pounder gun. In addition, some of the old tanks were re-worked.

Brtain started the war with no modern tanks, she lost all the armored equipment which was in France in June, 1940, although that equipment would by itself have had little value later. From that date the UK concentrated on numbers at the expense of immediate reliability, startign with the production from the drawing board of the A.22 Churchill tank. A number of much more powerful cruiser and infantry tanks more heavily armoured were in the course of development by mid-1942, some of which will shortly came into production and were in the hands of the troops.

During the battles of 1941 in Libya, it was realised that at all events in this open warfare in the desert, Britain must try to provide the troops with a type of tank of heavier armor and with heavier guns before the production to could come into being. The bulk of British tank forces was made up of Matildas, Crusaders and Valentines, all armed with the little 2-pounder gun, which again and again proved almost completely useless against the German tanks, all equipped with the 47 mm. gun. The Germans arrived in Africa with their 75mm Mark III and Mark IV Panzer divisions. These tanks were superior in armor plating thickness, dependability and firepower. Rommel also received new improvements in the Mark III and IV Specials which included hardened armor and high velocity long barreled guns. The Italian's inferior 47mm M13 tanks were only a threat to infantry. The British Matilda and Crusader tanks were mechanically unreliable and deficient in armor protection and firepower against the threat. The Germans were capable of destroying the British armor at ranges of 2000-3000 yards while the British were required to close to within 600 yards to effect a kill.

With regard to guns, early consideration was given to a higher-powered gun than the 2-pounder. The 2-pounder was the gun chosen before the war both for tank and anti-tank purposes. The 2-pounder gun proved itself in France to be more than a match for the German counterpart. The 6-pounder, the higher-powered gun, was approved, put into production, and came out of production in very substantial quantities in November 1941, and that was a very significant performance. By mid-1942 the Army had more 6-pounder anti-tank guns than they had 2-pounder anti-tank guns a year earlier.

At this time Britain obtained help from the United States, which shipped a considerable quantity of "General Grant" tanks, that is to say, the Mark III armed with a 75 mm. gun and with a radial engine and power-operated turret, the latter being a development of English design. This tank proved a match in battle against the best German tanks that had been put into the field by early 1942. It wasn't until 1942 and El Alamein that the British were reinforced with U.S. 75mm Sherman tanks equal in capability to the best German main battle tank.

The Director of Tank Design and Development at the Ministry of Supply had manufactured in peace-time a headlamp and accessories for cars. Headlamps were the biggest thing he made. Also in the same Ministry there was a Director of Armoured Vehicles, who manufactured bicycles in peace-time. The Royal Air Force was equipped with aircraft equal to and superior to anything that Germany can produce. Starting with no greater handicap than the R.A.F., soldiers who fought in armored units had not been given the equipment and armament with which to meet their enemies on level, still less upon superior, terms.

At the time of the fall of Tobruk President Roosevelt gave the first 350 Sherman tanks which had already been issued to the American Army and they played a key part in the Battle at Alamein. When Churchill went back to America a year after, there was an ample supply of these tanks, formerly so precious and rare, from the flow of American mass production which had got into its stride, and the US was able to offer the British 3,000 or 4,000 more of those invaluable weapons. This was of great advantage. Brtian was able to carry through a further redisposition of its tank program and to reduce the scale of production, thus releasing man-power and materials for making other instruments of war which were urgently required. The UK was able also to carry through the development of the Cromwell, the Churchill and other types in an orderly manner freed from fear of a shortage of tanks in the hands of the troops.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 18:34:06 ZULU