One Churchill was forced to retire, however, when its cannon’s recoil system failed. A second Churchill advanced into action and disappeared, then was seen reversing back toward British lines out of the smoky battlefield. Suddenly, the tank started to burn and only one of the crew got out. Later, an examination of the tank revealed the terrible punishment it had absorbed. In all, 38 rounds of German 50mm and six rounds of 75mm shells had hit the tank. Only one round of each caliber had penetrated, and one of those rounds had breached the fuel tank.
Eight rounds from British 6-pounder guns had hit the tank in the rear, and four of these had gotten through the armor. These shots apparently came from a nearby Australian battery of antitank guns. Two explanations exist for why the Churchill was fired upon by the battery. One states that the Churchill’s silhouette, being new to the Australian gunners, was mistaken in the smoke for a panzer and engaged. The second story goes that the smoke from the burning Churchill was obscuring the line of sight for the antitank guns, so they shot it so it would burn out more quickly. Major King, in the third tank, took eight hits but remained operational and hit four German tanks in return.
Morrell was Given Permission to try Converting 75mm Cannon on the Tank but was Warned that if it Failed and He Ruined an Otherwise Serviceable Churchill, His Career was as Good as Over
Kingforce fought again a week later at Tell el Aqqaqir. This second and last engagement for the unit proved once again the Churchill’s toughness. Although one tank endured a turret failure before engaging, several others took tremendous punishment. One was hit 30 times but suffered only a broken track, while another took nine hits that resulted finally in a jammed turret. King himself was in a Churchill that had a German 50mm round fly right through the driver’s vision port and into the crew compartment. Believing the tank was about to catch fire, the crew abandoned it. Before long, they realized it was not burning, and it was driven off the battlefield.
Several Churchill-equipped regiments were used in the tough fighting in Tunisia. It was here that British ingenuity spawned a variant not on the testing grounds, but in the combat zone itself. Captain Percy Morrell was an officer in the 665th Tank Troops Workshop, a unit that scrapped damaged tanks deemed too expensive to fix. Morrell noticed that the gun mantlet of the Churchill cast a shadow that provided a clear aiming point for German gunners. A number of Churchills had been hit around this area. Also, by mid-1943 the 6-pounder armament was fast becoming obsolete and lacked a high-explosive round. With the fighting in Africa finished, several Churchill units were being held back from the fighting in Italy, apparently due to this issue.
There were also a number of Sherman tanks, equipped with 75mm cannon, in the scrapyard. Morrell studied, took measurements, and concluded the 75mm gun would fit into a Churchill turret with some modifications. He was given permission to try a conversion but was warned that if it failed and he ruined an otherwise serviceable Churchill, his career was as good as over. Luckily, the conversion was a success, and over 200 tanks were so equipped. For his part, Morrell was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of major. Given the designation Churchill (NA) 75, with the NA standing for North Africa, these tanks served in the Italian Theater. Meanwhile, the first Mark VI Churchill models, also armed with a 75mm cannon, came into production. Many earlier versions were upgraded as well.
The design’s versatility would be taken a step further with the Normandy invasion. Sir Percy Hobart, commander of the 79th Armored Division, oversaw the development of specialized tanks that would help ensure the landings’ success. Collectively, these vehicles would come to be known as “Hobart’s Funnies,” a name the general despised.
The first was the Churchill AVRE (Armored Vehicle, Royal Engineer), which was built with a set of standard fixtures so it could be adapted to carry different equipment as needed. For getting across ditches, the vehicle could carry the Small Box Girder (SBG) Bridge that would unfold from atop the tank. Fascines, bundles of wood that could be dropped into a ditch, could also be carried. The carpetlayer, used earlier at Dieppe, carried a large roll of canvas over the hull that played down across the front of the tank, went under, and then trailed behind to leave a roadway for vehicles that might otherwise bog down in the sand.
AVREs could also be equipped with a 290mm Petard mortar in the turret. It could throw a 40-pound explosive charge up to 80 yards to smash bunkers and obstacles. Engineers also appreciated the side escape hatches, which they could use to exit during battles with less exposure to enemy fire.
The second was the Churchill Crocodile, an improved flamethrower tank. The flame unit was carried in the hull in place of the machine gun, so the main gun was still available for use. An armored trailer was towed behind and carried enough fuel for 80 one-second bursts at ranges of up to 120 yards. This variant was particularly feared for obvious reasons, and enemy gunners would often aim for the trailer, hoping to disable it before the Crocodile could get into flame range.
Clarkeforce Knocked out 13 Assault Guns and Took 230 Prisoners for the Loss of 11 Churchills, 3 Stuart Light Tanks, and a Recovery Vehicle
These specialized variants were the only Churchills to see action on D-Day; the first regular regiments did not join the fighting until the end of June. The British give some of the credit for their successful landings to the modified Churchills of the 79th Armored. AVREs used their Petard mortars to destroy German defenses on both Juno and Sword Beaches, working in concert with other armored vehicles and engineers. Once committed, Churchills took part in the attacks to break out from
Normandy. The 31st and 34th Tank Brigades, along with the 6th Guards Tank Brigade, fought during this period, mostly in support of various infantry formations.
During the advance into the Low Countries, one Churchill formation, the 107th Royal Tank Regiment, was combined with infantry, artillery, engineers and tank destroyers to form Clarkeforce, named for its commander, Brigadier W.S. Clarke of the 34th Tank Brigade. The unit’s mission was to spearhead an advance to take the Scheldt Estuary, needed to secure the major port of Antwerp, Belgium. It was a deep penetration into German lines, a daunting task for an infantry tank unit.
The flat terrain was punctuated by woods and waterways, the former defended by the Germans and the latter impeding maneuver. Fighting ended after 10 days from October 20-30, 1944, during which the force went 25 miles and fought numerous engagements. Clarke issued a report the following week, noting the losses on both sides. Clarkeforce had fought mostly against assault guns and infantry, knocking out 13 of the assault guns and taking some 230 prisoners for the loss of 11 Churchills, three Stuart light tanks, and a recovery vehicle. Supporting units lost a further 19 Churchills, though only seven of the combined total were considered unrecoverable. Even against the improved antitank weapons of the late war, the Churchill could still hold its own better than most other Allied tanks.
The fighting around Goch was one of the last actions fought by Churchill units, though some did see action during the Allied airborne assault across the Rhine. With war’s end, some Churchills were retained in service. A few later saw action in Korea. Most were scrapped or disposed of, however, gradually replaced by Centurions or late-war British designs like the Comet. The Australian Army kept some in service until 1956, and the Irish Free State received four of them. One was kept in working condition until at least the 1970s, still capable of firing until ammunition was no longer manufactured for it. A few can still be seen at museums and war memorials in Britain, Europe, and the United States.
Despite development problems, the Churchill tank, much like its namesake, doggedly continued in service and eventually proved a versatile and capable design.
Christopher Miskimon served in the U.S. Army in both the infantry and artillery. He writes out of Denver, Colorado.
This article originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Jebulon