Australian Churchills & Registration Numbers

Early in 1944, as a result of a recommendation made by the Lethbridge Mission, the War Office urgently requested the Australian Army to carry out tropical service trials on Sherman and Churchill tanks. The trials were to comparatively test these tanks (along with Matilda tanks) in tropical conditions similar to those in which Matilda tanks already seen active service. The War Office specifically requested a detailed scientific report on the effects of tropical conditions on electrical equipment (both in service and storage) detailing all modifications considered necessary. The Department of Tank Development were apparently depending on this feedback in order that the electrical equipment of Churchill tanks could be tropic-proofed in production. It was anticipated that the trials would take 2 to 3 weeks, after which time the tanks were to returned to the 4th Australian Armoured Brigade for further tests in Australia.

There was a proposal made by Brig. D Macarthur-Onslow, (Comd. 4 Aust. Armd. Bde) that Cromwell, Stuart and Grants also be included in the trials. However, this suggestion was rejected on the grounds that: the Stuart had already been used in New Guinea and found unsuitable, the Grant was being replaced by the Sherman anyway and the Cromwell being a cruiser tank was unsuitable for jungle use (also few spares available).

On the 15th July 1944 six Churchill tanks arrived in Sydney aboard the SS Leaside Park. These tanks were then loaded on to the US Liberty Ship, Norman J. Coleman which then sailed to Brisbane where, on the 5th August, three Churchills were unloaded (T173254/B Mk.V, T172724/B Mk.IV, T173279/C Mk.VI) and replaced with three Shermans (two M4s and a M4A2). The Norman J. Coleman then sailed directly to New Guinea. The three Churchills remaining onboard were (T173033B Mk IV, T173250B Mk V and T173165 Mk VII).

The trials took take place in Madang area, close to the workshops of the 2/4th Australian Armoured Regiment. The terrain selected was quite extreme including mud up to 3 feet deep, very dense undergrowth and creek crossings 18 feet wide and up to 10 feet deep. Rainfall during the period of the trials amounted to over 12 inches per month. Taking part in the trials were fifty personnel from the 4th Australian Armoured Brigade commanded by Major G.C. Dennis (appointed by 6 Armd. Corps), two British Army instructors who arrived from the U.K. with the tanks and two Matildas (Mk.V) of the 1st Australian Armoured Regiment from Finschhafen area (with full crews) used for comparison. The Australian War Memorial web site has a fascinating series of photographs of the trial - to see them use Madang and Churchill as keywords in their search engine.

Whilst the Sherman proved superior in terms of reliability, visibility and its ability to navigate side slopes, the Churchills manoeuvrability, especially at low speeds, was judged to be superior. This coupled with its greater armour thickness and ground clearance led to the Churchill being considered to be the more suitable vehicle for jungle operations.

Following the Madang trials, the tanks were shipped to Australia where some further trials were conducted prior to the Australian Government placing an order for 510 Churchills. By the time the war had ended only 51 Churchills (comprising of the six trials original trial vehicles and 45 production tanks) had been received and at this point the order for the remaining vehicles was cancelled.

Below is a list of the W.D. numbers of the 51 Churchill tanks supplied to Australia. The list has been generously supplied by Michael Grieve and was compiled as a result of his research at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

 

Mk. IV (2 off)

Vehicle no.

Comments

T172724B

One of the orginal six trail vehicles. Photographed with the 4th Armoured Brigade, Nerang, Queensland. 14-08-1944.

T173033B

Madang trials vehicle, From photographs of the Madang trials this vehicle has a MkV style turret with central ventilator and 'square' mantlet aperture.

 

Mk. V (2 off)

Vehicle no.

Comments

T173250B

Madang trials vehicle, named "The Stork"

T173254B

One of the orginal six trail vehicles later converted to ARV

 

Mk. VI (1 off)

Vehicle no.

Comments

T173279C

One of the orginal six trail vehicles.

 

Mk. VII (31 off)

Vehicle no.

Comments

T173165

Madang trials vehicle. An early production MkVII without mantlet splash cheeks. A vehicle carrying this registration can be found at the Melbourne Tank Museum, Narre Warren North however if this is the original vehicle it has been returreted as it now sports turret cheeks.

T341235K

T341244K

T341246K

T341247K

T341251K

T341365K

T341366K

T341367K

 

T341369K

 

T341370L

 

T341437K

 

T341441K

 

T341442K

 

T341443K

 

T341444K

 

T341445K

 

T341446K

 

T341447K

 

T341448K

 

T341449K

Converted to ARV

T341450K

 

T341451K

 

T341452L

 

T341561K

 

T341563L

 

T341564L

 

T341565L

Converted to ARV

T341566L

 

T341567L

 

T341644K

Assault Vehicle-Royal Engineers (T)

 

Mk. VIII (15 off)

Vehicle no.

Comments

T252390K

Crocodile

T252391K

T252397K

Crocodile

T252398K

 

T252399K

 

T252418K

 

T341219K

 

T341614K

 

T341617K

 

T341618K

Assault Vehicle-Royal Engineers (L)

T341620K

 

T341641K

 

T341643K

 

T341645K

 

T341646K

 

 

There are some points of interest arising out of this list:

  • Out of those delivered, almost half were 95mm Howitzer armed MkVIIIs.
  • From his research at the AWM Mike has discovered a reference that 30 Crocodile Mk.I flamethrower trailers were "obtained for allotment to the Mk. VIII Churchill tanks". Were the 30 trailers required to meet the requirements of the original order of 510 Churchills or the 51 actually delivered? From the list above we can see that there are only two crocodiles specifically mentioned and both of these were based upon the MkVIII. 30 trailers for 2 crocodiles seems overkill so it may be that there were to be more crocodiles to be converted and the implication is that these would be based on MkVIIIs.
  • The Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers (L) and Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers (T) are interesting designations, which we can't explain at the moment. These vehicles are based upon MkVIII and MkVII Churchills and are unlikely to have been petard-mounting AVREs - perhaps these vehicles were Bridgelayers/Arks or were fitted with CRID mountings.
  • Three vehicles were converted to ARVs. It would be interesting to compare these conversions (especially the MkVIIs) with the REME ARV conversions.
  • A newsreel film held in the research centre of the Australian War Memorial shows a troop of Churchill tanks of the 1st Australian Armoured Regiment on the firing ranges of the Puckapunyal School of Armour. Visible are three Churchill Mk.VIIs and a Churchill Mk.VIII, which still has it's armoured fuel link for a Crocodile trailer attached to the rear hull plate. Sadly, while present, registration numbers are not legible.

Little is known about the postwar use of the Churchill tank in the Australian Army, although it is believed that these vehicles served with the 1st Australian Armoured Regiment until the introduction of the Centurion. Legend has it that a Churchill ARV nicknamed "Radish" soldiered on for many years rescuing broken-down and bogged Centurions on the hills and ranges of the Puckapunyal School of Armour.

Any help/comments on these or any other issues would be gratefully received.

 

2002 M. Grieve