The Churchill Tank: One of the Best of World War II

January 5, 2018 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIBritainChurchilltankArmorWarfareMilitaryTechnology

The Churchill Tank: One of the Best of World War II

Despite a troubled development, the Churchill 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.

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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.