The origins of the Matilda Tank or “I” Tank date back to 1934, when Maj. Gen. Percy C.S. Hobart, then the Inspector, Royal Tank Corps (RTC), itemized the features of a new infantry support weapon that would be “moderately well-armoured and equipped with a machine gun, available in large numbers to swamp the enemy defences; or a larger type, mounting a cannon and armoured sufficiently to be proof against field artillery.”
Due to finances, Britain’s interwar military leaders favored the smaller of Hobart’s prototypes, the A11, which was codenamed Matilda. This curious name was derived from a popular feathered cartoon character of the time, Matilda the Duck, because the tank’s 27 tons of metal moved about as elegantly as an overweight waddling duck.
The initial A11 offering from Vickers-Armstrong, Ltd., in 1935 was an inexpensive, small, two-man tank that possessed a solitary machine gun, thus, hardly a mechanized weapon to “swamp the enemy defences,” but rather a mobile, armored machine gun. By January 1938, as the prospects for war in Europe heightened, the British Army now desired a cannon-armed infantry tank, which was labeled the A12, Matilda Mark I, and was to be produced by the Vulcan Foundry in Cheshire. This tank would have a coaxial Vickers .303-caliber, water-cooled machine gun and a 2-pounder antitank (AT) gun firing armor piercing (AP) rounds only, housed in a three-man turret. The official rationale for the absence of a turret gun capable of firing high-explosive (HE) shells was that this tank was to protect infantry from enemy tanks. Just prior to the outbreak of hostilities, the 2-pounder was believed to be the best AT gun in any army.
Advanced Armor Protection (For Its Time)
The first A12 prototype was available by April 1938, and an initial order was placed with Vulcan Foundry for an additional 140 tanks in June 1938. The A12’s two understrength 87-horsepower engines were located side by side in the rear half of the chassis. The heavily armored vehicle managed a top speed of 15 miles per hour, which was ample to support infantry. Future events would prove the lack of speed to be a major problem in dealing with the fast-moving German panzers in France and then in North Africa against the Deutsche Afrika Korps (DAK). In reality, over rough desert the Matilda seldom managed speeds of over six miles per hour.
The main virtue of the A12 design was its armor protection. The hull front was to possess 78mm of armor, while the thinnest area of the tank’s armor was 20mm, twice as much as that of any other British tank. The thickness of the steel plates would ensure that the A12 would be able to resist the impact of any enemy AT gun presently in use. Another protective feature of the A12 was that the suspension was totally enclosed with deep side skirts containing mud chutes and inspection panels. The Matilda A12 had a crew of four.
In May 1940, when the Wehrmacht’s assault began in the West, there were only 23 A12 Matildas out of a desired lot of 100 tanks, and these were all with the 7th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (7th RTR). The other British RTR battalions, notably the 4th Battalion,
RTR (4th RTR), had only the A11 Matildas. Although the A12 was invulnerable to the 37mm AT gun that the Germans fielded, it could be destroyed by the Nazi deployment of a “new” artillery weapon. In fact, it was Rommel’s own 7th Panzer Division that first utilized the Flak 38 88mm antiaircraft (AA) gun in an AT role as the only means to deal with the heavily armored Matilda A12, Mark I Infantry tanks that suddenly attacked his troops south of Arras in France in May 1940.
These 88mm guns could easily kill the Matilda A12, Mark I at 2,000 yards, twice the effective range of most British guns, especially the I tank’s 2-pounder, which could only fire AP solid shot. Lacking HE ammunition, the Matildas facing the 88mm guns without artillery, such as the excellent British 25-pounder field gun, and infantry support were more or less helpless against these Flak 38 guns. Also, since the Wehrmacht’s tactic was to exploit enemy fortifications over a wide front, many A11 and A12 tanks experienced both engine and track failures, trying to keep up with the Nazi blitzkrieg.
Matilda Tanks Captured
With the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) evacuation from Dunkirk , every British infantry in France and Belgium was lost. German records claim that about 100 Matildas, mostly A11s, were captured in France. The handful of Matilda A12, Mark I tanks captured in France were not of much use to the Germans except for inspection and analysis. After the evacuation from the Continent, only the 8th Battalion, RTR (8th RTR) had tanks, with twice as many A11 tanks as A12s, and this armored unit was situated in the south of England waiting for the planned German invasion of England, Operation Sealion.