Key Point: Despite a troubled development, the Churchill tank went on to become one of the most numerous and versatile British tanks.
The German town of Goch lay east of the Reichswald forest, a scene of heavy fighting for the British Army as it ground its way steadily into the heart of Germany. The 107th Regiment, Royal Armored Corps, and elements of the 79th Armored Division had taken part in the fighting there through much of February 1945. The poor condition of the local roads had made tough going for the Churchill tanks of both units, as much an enemy as the antitank mines and dogged German resistance.
After clearing the forest, Goch fell. It was February 20, 1945. However, some of the pillboxes on the town’s outer defense line continued to be occupied by German troops still willing to fight. To solve this dilemma the British troops devised a successful technique that would destroy or capture them. First, Churchill tanks armed with either 75mm cannon or 95mm howitzers would shell the bunker in question. If the Germans inside still held out, then Churchill AVREs, an engineer version armed with a large mortar called a Petard and capable of lobbing 40 pounds of explosives, would move in, protected by the gun-armed tanks. The AVRE would hit the bunker, the massive charge doing substantial damage to the emplacement’s interior and hopefully inducing surrender. If that also failed, the Churchill Crocodiles would come in, flamethrowers mounted in their hulls. A stream of flame would be fired, and one last chance for surrender given. If the soldiers in the pillbox still refused to give up, the structure would be doused in fire.
The Churchill tank was one of the most produced British tank designs during World War II, with over 5,600 being built. It was also one of the most widely modified, and Churchills found use in a variety of nonstandard yet vital roles. The Churchill’s beginning, however, was filled with development problems and design changes. Most, or at least enough, of these problems were overcome so that the tank gave good service right up to the end of the European war.
At the start of World War II, British Army doctrine divided tanks and their roles into three distinct categories. Light tanks were intended for reconnaissance. Cruiser tanks were designed to speed through gaps in the enemy’s defenses and plunge deep into their territory, akin to the horse cavalry of an earlier time. Finally, the infantry tank was meant to move with the infantry and support its attacks. Infantry tanks would have heavy armor to defeat antitank guns and a low top speed since they only needed to keep up with the walking pace of the foot soldiers.
The Churchill was designed as an infantry tank, with initial pilot models, designated A20, ordered soon after the start of the war in September 1939. As such, thought was given to the characteristics it would need to support infantry. The vehicle would need armor at least 80mm thick to resist all known enemy anti-tank guns then in service. The top speed requested was only 10 miles per hour. Based on World War I experience, the Army believed the tank would need to be able to cross trenches, obstacles, and shell craters. Its decision makers wanted a crew of seven and an armament of two 2-pounder guns and three machine guns. Trials began in June 1940.
There were troubles with the transmission, and it was discovered that the pair of 2-pounders in the hull had to be eliminated.
France had fallen early during the trial period, negating the chance that the vehicle would have to fight in the conditions it was designed for, but development continued nonetheless. At this point Great Britain was thought to be in imminent danger of invasion, with most of its tanks destroyed or abandoned in France. It was decided to finish development with some changes and get the tank into production. It was now designated the A22 and named for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This rush to bring the Churchill into service was largely responsible for the early mechanical troubles, as there was no time for the normal testing that would reveal weaknesses and solutions.
Three of the Tanks were Modified to Carry Flamethrowers and Five were Equipped to Lay Canvas “Carpet” on the Beach
The first model to enter service was designated the Churchill Mark One, sometimes simply called the Churchill I. It was armed with a 2-pounder gun in a cast turret with a coaxial machine gun. Mounted in the hull was a 3-inch howitzer. The hull of the tank consisted of a mild steel layer a half-inch thick onto which the armor plates would be riveted or bolted. The tracks ran all the way around the hull, reminiscent of World War I British tanks. This allowed the hull to extend within the tracks, so that the interior was more spacious, making the Churchill a prime candidate for modification into the many variants later seen. Maximum armor thickness was 102mm, quite thick for the early war period. Weight was correspondingly high at nearly 40 tons. Top speed was 15.5 miles per hour with a range of 90 miles, powered by a 12-cylinder Bedford engine at 350 horsepower. The crew of five included a commander, gunner, loader, driver, and co-driver. Its length was 24.5 feet, with a width of almost nine feet and a height of just less than 11 feet.
Of the many Churchill variants, two figured prominently in the tank’s first combat use. The Mark II simply replaced the 3-inch howitzer with a second machine gun, and the Mark III carried a new turret with a 6-pounder gun. Close-support versions of the Churchill placed the 3-inch howitzer in the turret instead of the 2-pounder.
The first combat action for this design would not occur with British tankers, but with their Canadian Allies. Churchills of all three Marks, issued to the Calgary Regiment of the Canadian Army, were assigned to go ashore for the raid on Dieppe, France, on August 19, 1942. Three of the tanks were modified to carry flamethrowers and five were equipped to lay canvas “carpet” on the beach. Plans called for the tanks to assist the attacking infantry in causing as much damage as possible to the town’s port facilities, German garrison, and a nearby airfield. The carpet-laying Churchills would unroll their fabric and wood carpets to help the other vehicles get better traction on the stones of the beach’s shingle. The rest of the vehicles would follow and scale a seawall with help from the engineers.
Things went awry almost as soon as the operation began. Two of the tanks wallowed in the water and never even got to shore. Twenty-seven more reached the beach, which was covered by small stones. These stones got into the tracks of a number of Churchills, breaking them and leaving the tanks stuck on the beach. Teams of engineers had been detailed to use explosive charges and materials to build ramps over the seawall to help the vehicles get over it. These engineers were not able to carry out their tasks, so the armor was left to get itself over this obstacle. Only 15 were able to get over the seawall and move inland to support the infantry as heavy German fire covered the beach.
Once inland, the Churchills were stopped by more concrete obstacles placed by the Germans to prevent the movement of tanks into the town. Engineers were supposed to remove these obstacles as well but things did not go according to plan. The tanks did engage what targets they could, knocking out a number of bunkers and an immobile French tank used by the Germans. One Churchill even drove into a building to knock it down and dislodge its defenders. The last wave of Churchills, still aboard landing craft offshore, was never sent in by the operation’s commander. German fire was heavy, and slowly the attackers were pushed back toward the sea. None of the tanks were recovered, and only a single man of the Calgary Regiment’s tank crews that went ashore returned to England.
For its part, the Churchill actually proved resistant to enemy antitank fire except for the tracks, which, besides being vulnerable to breakage from the stones of the beach, also fractured when directly hit by enemy shells.
Later, a copy of a German report on Dieppe was received by the British. It criticized the Churchill as being weakly armed with obsolete, ineffective weapons, equipped with tracks that broke easily and armor plating of poor quality. However, only two of the 29 tanks were penetrated by the German antitank guns, despite numerous hits on many of them.
The next action for the tank came in North Africa. Concerns over whether the tank could withstand desert service resulted in six Mark IIIs being sent to Egypt to find out. Formed as part of an ad hoc group known as Kingforce, under Major Norris King, they went into action at the Second Battle of El Alamein. King led three Churchills against dug-in panzers and 88mm cannon near a position known as Kidney Ridge. A furious deluge of fire greeted them, but the trio of tanks pressed on.