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.
With invasion imminent, production of Matildas continued since there was no time to retool the factories for newer British tanks mounting heavier guns. The Matilda A12, Mark I was modified after the disaster in France to include the British version of the Czech ZB air-cooled .303-caliber Besa machine gun to replace the venerable Vickers machine gun. To accommodate this change, some spatial alterations needed to be made to the turret of the A12, Mark I. Also, the electric pump for the water cooling supply was removed and an extractor fan was positioned in the turret’s roof. This modified vehicle was now called Infantry Tank, Matilda Mark II. Within a very short time, it was decided to replace the power units with seven-liter Leyland diesel engines, which could produce 95 horsepower. Another model included modifications to the gearbox and steering systems and was named Infantry Tank, Matilda Mark III. Later Marks (IIICS, IV, IVCS, and V) were produced with the turret modified to mount a 3-inch howitzer to fire smoke rounds to help conceal other 2-pounder gun tanks within the armored unit, hence the designation Matilda Mark IIICS, for close support.
The first Infantry Tank, Matilda Mark II contingent to arrive in Egypt in the autumn of 1940, after the threat of invasion of Britain waned, was with the 7th RTR under Lt. Col. R.M. Jerram. This unit, after two months of desert maneuvers, was to be part of the Western Desert Force, initially composed of the 7th Armored and the 4th Indian Divisions, all under the command of Lt. Gen. Richard O’Connor.
“The Nearest Thing to Hell I Ever Saw”
In early November 1940, O’Connor was appointed an acting lieutenant general in recognition of the increased size of his command and the ranks of his subordinate commanders. The Matildas of the 7th RTR were designed for direct support of infantry and to create a shock wave in the Italian defense positions then being erected on the Egyptian frontier. The Matilda tank, which caused much alarm to Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division during the invasion of France and the Low Countries in the spring of 1940, was soon to demonstrate its invulnerability to virtually every Italian gun in the Western Desert during Operation Compass. This infantry tank, thus, had a prominent effect on destroying the morale of the Italian infantry, artillery, and armored troops as the Matilda’s 2-pounder outclassed any Italian tank or antitank artillery gun.
O’Connor started Compass with an attack on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa, roughly 12 miles south of Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast, just before dawn on December 9, 1940. He thoroughly surprised the Italians by emerging out of the Western Desert with elements of the 4th Indian Division that had disembarked from Bren carriers supported by 57 Matilda I tanks of the 7th RTR with their guns hammering away at the Italian artillery sangars and infantry field trenches. An Italian Army doctor referred to the Matilda tanks as “the nearest thing to hell I ever saw.”
The Italians were overwhelmed as Indian infantry units mopped up what was missed by the assaulting Matildas. As aptly stated by observer Barrie Pitt, “These [Matildas] having brushed aside the Italian tanks, burst through the entrance and fanned out across the camp area like avenging furies…. Their 2-pounders had little to fire at once they were in the camp but their machine guns chattered interminably, cutting down anyone who moved above ground, then concentrating on the gun crews as these proved to be the most determined enemies…. Everywhere the Matildas ranged they flushed dazed, frightened but often desperate Italians and Libyans from covered trenches and slits, from open holes in the ground—some without weapons at all, some with weapons which they dropped as they put their hands up … leaving death and disorder in their wake.” So complete was the victory that more than 4,000 Italians surrendered at Nibeiwa with only two men killed and five wounded in the 7th RTR.
Soon thereafter, of the 50 Matildas engaged in the battle at Sidi Barrani, only one Matilda was destroyed when a tank driver opened the armored visor of his viewing port and an Italian artillery shell went through it at that very moment. As testament to its durability against Italian armor and artillery, one Matilda was hit 38 times and was still fully operational. After numerous successful engagements against the Italians, in what was initially General Wavell’s planned reconnaissance in force (sometimes referred to as the “Five Day Raid”), the 7th RTR Matildas and the 4th Indian Division hurled the enemy back to its nearest coastal stronghold at Bardia. The Matilda had earned the sobriquet “Queen of the Desert.”