The Churchill Tank has to be one of the most easily identifiable British Tanks of the Second World War. Its development came at a time when Britain had its back to the wall and was facing imminent invasion. Like it's the man it was named after it is a tank that came to embody the stubborn bulldog spirit.
In the late thirties British tank doctrine identified three distinct roles for tanks these being classified as light tanks, intended for reconnaissance, cruisers for rapid exploitation of breakthroughs and Infantry tanks. Infantry tanks were to support the infantry providing covering fire, dealing with obstacles and fortifications etc. The primary requirement of such tanks was that they should be heavily armoured and that they were able to go everywhere the infantry went.
The A22 can be viewed in many ways as a continuation of the A20 programme. Following Dunkirk it was realised that the static warfare that had been expected was not going to occur - at least not for some time and so the 'shelled area' concept of the A20 was abandoned. However, a successor for the A12 and Valentine was still required and with this in mind the General Staff drew up a requirement for A.22. To implement this requirement the Ministry of Supply turned to Vauxhall who as we have already seen had previously been approached with regard to A.20 production.
Development work started in July 1940 and because of the urgent need to re-arm after Dunkirk, Churchill himself required that the new tank be ready for production the following March with 500 being ordered pretty much off the drawing board. The first prototypes were completed by December 1940 and the first 14 production tanks delivered at the end of June and despite missing the Churchill's target date this still represents a tremendous engineering effort.
The earlier Churchills were plagued by a whole host of problems such as tracks breaking and suspension units failing but given the incredible pace of development and the rush to get them into production this was perhaps inevitable. Despite the many component failures the design itself did prove to be quite robust with damaged vehicles often managing to limp back from their trials under their own power. As faults were identified and fixed a massive re-work program was introduced with Vauxhall engineers often being seconded to units in the field. Several times Churchill production was in danger of being the stopped but when push came to shove there wasn't any real alternative and new orders were placed.
The basic layout remained for all the subsequent variants. The hull was box like with a stepped front and was made entirely from flat plates bolted or riveted together. Attached to each side were panniers around which the tracks ran. Each pannier had an access door to the front and an air intake to the engine to the rear. The air intakes themselves were detachable to reduce the overall vehicle width when travelling by rail.
The tracks extended forwards beyond the front of the hull giving excellent trench crossing abilities albeit at the expense of a driver's limited field of view. The suspension consisted of 11 independently sprung bogies which at first glance looks excessive but the first and last wheels only come in contact with the ground when climbing or on soft ground thereby increasing the track length in contact with the ground and reducing the ground pressure. Another advantage of so many wheels is that the suspension as a whole could still function despite suffering the loss or failure of individual units.
The vehicle was steered by a tiller bar rather than by the more common-place levers and on the early Mks this bar extended over to the hull gunner's allowing him to take control of the vehicle to help lay the hull mounted howitzer. The transmission was perhaps the vehicle's most advanced feature. It employed the Merritt-Brown regenerative system that allowed the driver to make increasingly sharper turns as the tank slowed and when stationary the tank could perform a 'neutral' turn in it's own length without any forward movement.
The choice of main armament requires some explanation. The tank had originally been conceived as an offensive weapon to be used against infantry and consequently they were armed with machine guns and/or guns capable of delivering high explosive shells. However, an Infantry tank's role was that of infantry support and had also to protect the associated infantry from enemy tanks. Destruction of enemy armour is usually a matter of penetrating the armour with the resulting metal fragments causing damage inside the enemy vehicle and perhaps igniting fuel or setting off the ammunition stored there. Unfortunately to achieve armour penetration, different ballistic properties are required to those needed to deliver effectively high explosive making a duel purpose weapon particularly difficult to design.
The cast turret was armed with a 2-pounder gun, which at the time was an excellent anti-tank weapon but didn't have an effective high explosive shell. Mounted co-axially with the turret gun was a Besa machine gun. To provide high explosive capability a 3-inch howitzer was mounted in the hull to the left of the driver's position. This arrangement caused some operational problems because the hull-mounted gun only had limited traverse due to the projecting track horns and being mounted so low it had restricted elevation and depression which was a real handicap as HE shells are fired at relatively low velocity and so elevation is required to lob them any distance. Due to a limited supply the 3-inch howitzers the hull gun was subsequently replaced by a Besa machine gun and the designation changed to Churchill MkII. To provide smoke cover a bomb thrower was installed in the turret firing through an aperture in the turret roof.
By 1942 the 2-pounder gun was no longer an effective anti-tank weapon and a new 6-pounder had been developed. The 6-pounder was a much larger gun and so a larger turret was designed consisting of welded armour plates. Tanks fitted with this were designated Churchill MkIII and produced from March 1942. Unfortunately due to a short supply of armour plate this turret was soon replaced by yet another cast turret (Churchill MkIV). The 6-pdr, like the 2-pdr before it, was essentially an anti-tank gun. A HE shell was developed but the relatively small calibre of the 6-pdr (57mm) was a restricting factor on the effectiveness. Many historians will tell you that the there was no 6-pdr HE or that it was of no partical use. However, 6-pdr HE was used to some effect by the Army Tank Brigades in Tunisia. The root of this confusion is probably due to the comparison of the 6-pdr with American 75mm ofthe same era. The 75mm HE was a much larger shell and could be used in to shell target areas - the 6-pdr HE by comparision could not be used in this way but was effective when used against specific individual targets such as anti-tank guns etc. The Amy Tank Brigades were trained to operate in this way and so were probably much more effective in their use of 6-pdr HE than the other Armoured Formations.
To provide close support the 95mm Howizer was developed which could fire HE, Smoke and also a HEAT round. The HEAT although devestating was not said to be particularly accurate. Within a Churchill Brigade it was typcal to have around 10% of vehicles armed with 95mms, usually Brigade and Squadron HQ. The 95mm required yet a new turret to be desinged resulting in the MkV Churchill. The new turret wa visually very similar to the earlier MkIV turret and indeed MkIVs were then produced using the new style turret.
In early 1943 a British 75mm gun was developed that was capable of firing American ammunition thereby finally providing a dual purpose weapon able to fire armour piercing and effective HE. The new gun was developed from, and was a direct mechanical replacement for, the 6-pdr and so from late 1943 many MkIV Churchills were upgraded and became designated MkIII*s or MkIV (75mm). It is worth noting however that a fixed percentage of 6-pounder armed tanks were retained as on-going developments in ammunition technology (APDS) meant that ultimately the armour piecing capability of that weapon would be better.
During 1943 work began on another version of Churchill. The frontal armour of the hull and turret was increased to 6 inches. A new turret was designed and was again cast but with a roof plate that was welded on. Other visible differences are that the pannier doors are circular as is the drivers visor hatch. Despite the increased armour protection the Vauxhall engineers somehow managed limit the resultant increase in weight to only and extra ton however this did result in a drop in top speed from 15 M.P.H. to 13 m.p.h. This vehicle was designated the A22F Churchill MkVII and as with the MkIV some vehicles were fitted with the 95mm Howitzer and designated MkVIII. Many earlier Churchills were also fitted with extra 'applique' armour at this stage and some reworked to MkVII standards (although retaining the MkIV turret) became designated MkVI.
In addition to the standard
production models the Churchill was used as the basis for
an impressive range of engineering vehicles. The
Churchill would seem to have been particularly suitable
for these modifications due to its regular box like
shape. These modifications were carried out by the 79th
Armoured division and included adaptations to carry and
lay bridges, carpet-laying mechanism (for use where the
ground wasn't suitable for AFVs) and demolition by
mounting a petard mortar. Perhaps the most famous and
effective modification was the Churchill Crocodile
flame-thrower. Many of the MkVII Churchills were produced
with fittings that would allow for easy modification to
the flame-thrower role. The necessary equipment for the
conversion come in kit form and was fitted in the field.
The hull mounted Besa machine gun was removed and
replaced with the flame projector. The fuel was carried
behind the tank in an armoured trailer and was carried to
the flame projector via pipes underneath the hull. The
fuel was thickened to produce a jet that had a maximum
range of 120 yards and could be fired in short bursts or
continuously. The Churchill Crocodile was used
extensively and to good effect in North West Europe and
had a powerfully demoralising effect on the enemy
Whilst most other British Tanks had been produced by traditional heavy engineering firms the Churchill development was placed under the guardianship of an automotive company with no previous experience of producing armoured fighting vehicles. Despite this, Vauxhall's experience of mass production and speedy development were put to good use and while the Churchill was not an instant success it evolved into an effective fighting vehicle being capable of forming the basis of many specialised conversions.
The Churchill became one of the most heavily armoured Allied tanks and, in that respect at least, was on a par with German tanks which made it a favourite with tank crews. Whilst slow, it was able to tackle terrain that other Allied tanks could not and this ability to go anywhere proved to be particularly advantageous on the steep winding roads of Italy, the thick hedgerows of Normandy and the mud and trees of the Reichswald.
The design, whilst sound, was very much a throwback to the First World War and it ultimately proved incapable of effective further development. Despite this Churchills did continue in service for some time after the war especially the special engineering variants such as bridge-layers, AVREs and flame-throwers.
© C. Shillito 2000