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.”
46 Direct Hits
By the end of December 1940, O’Connor was again keen to use the Matildas of 7th RTR to attack Bardia, this time with Australian infantry of the 6th Australian Division. Western Desert Force was redesignated XIII Corps officially on January 1, 1941. On January 3, 1941, a contingent of Matildas accompanied by Australian infantry making their combat debut in World War II advanced as Italian artillery was completely unable to halt the infantry tanks.
One Matilda commander described the state of his armored vehicle after storming the Italian coastal fortress with the comment, “Anything breakable, radio aerials, water cans, lights, etc. had vanished, and evidence of no less than 46 direct hits, which says a lot for the Matilda.” On January 5, a set-piece attack with tanks and artillery was launched on the remaining Italian positions at Bardia. Six Matildas participated, and by midday the battle was over with thousands of Italians from the 45,000-man garrison surrendering.
In mid-January, the Italian defenses at the major Libyan port city of Tobruk were the last challenge for the Matildas of the 7th RTR. Some Italians who had escaped from Bardia to Tobruk had forewarned the defenders there of the “invincibility of the terrible Matildas.” The only consolation for the Italians was that the Australian infantry was moving so quickly that the 7th RTR and its relatively slow Matilda tanks could not keep up. Lt. Col. R.M. Jerram, commander of the 7th RTR, had imposed a strict half-speed limit (7.5 mph) on the Matildas when out of contact with the enemy to save wear and tear on their engines and vulnerable steering mechanisms.
The final attack on Tobruk was postponed until January 21 to allow as many Matildas as possible to be ready for the assault. The passage across Tobruk’s escarpment was especially difficult for the Matildas since they had to be hauled by heavy artillery tractors to save their engines from further wear. Even with the assistance of the hauling vehicles, only 18 Matildas were available for the January 21 attack. A troop of Matildas entered Tobruk’s harbor at 10 am on January 22. Two hours later, all organized Italian resistance had ceased. The 7th RTR’s Matildas, after traveling an average of 1,200 miles, had to be withdrawn by both rail and ship for heavy refitting and maintenance.
Famed author and armor proponent Captain Sir Basil Liddell-Hart commented, “The history of war shows no case of a single fighting unit having such a great effect in deciding the issue of battles.” O’Connor wrote Jerram, “It has been a wonderful show, and you are more than ever responsible for its success.”
With the appearance of the Nazis in the North African littoral in early 1941, the German PzKpfw. III battle tank mounting a 50mm gun reached the battlefields of the desert war. Also, the German 50mm Pak 38 AT gun could penetrate the front of a Matilda using composite rigid shot. The DAK also had a number of heavier Panzer IVs, which carried 75mm guns. Also, the German tanks carried dual-purpose guns capable of firing AP and HE rounds, while the Matilda only fired solid-shot AP shells, of little use against AT guns and infantry positions.
Despite its evolving obsolescence, the number of Matildas in the Middle Eastern Theater continued to increase. Both the 7th RTR and the 4th RTR took part in Wavell’s Operations Brevity and Battleaxe in May and June 1941. Wavell was pinning his hopes for success in these operations in part on the proven durability of the Matildas. However, both attacks, aimed at reclaiming the coastal region along the Libyan-Egyptian frontier and raising the siege of Tobruk, failed with many Matildas lost at long range. Of the 100 or so Matildas that participated in Battleaxe with the 4th Armored Brigade on the morning of June 15, only 37 were still capable of action when night fell, although the tank fitters would have 11 more ready by the following morning.
The Last Matilda Tank Production Order
Curiously, a captured German officer claimed that about 20 Matildas had broken through the Axis lines during Battleaxe near Fort Capuzz and advanced on a defenseless Bardia, where only German administrative units were posted. However, these Matildas ran into a battery of German 88s stationed there for air defense. The guns destroyed all of the British tanks. After Battleaxe, Wavell was replaced by General Claude Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East.
Elements of the 42nd and 44th RTR of the 1st Army Tank Brigade, comprising roughly 65 Matildas, took part in Auchinleck’s Operation Crusader battles that resulted in the relief of Tobruk. Approximately 70 Matildas of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade were also located within the Tobruk perimeter. On November 27, 1941, Matildas of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade from Tobruk met troops of the New Zealand Division near El Duda, raising the 240-day siege of Tobruk.
The last production order for 75 Matilda tanks was made in the spring of 1942, when the design clearly had become obsolete. However, the Matildas were implemented in a variety of different roles in the deserts of North Africa. The Gazala battles of May-June 1942 resulted in General Erwin Rommel’s DAK retaking Tobruk on June 21, 1942, and the pell-mell retreat of Auchinleck’s Eighth Army to the Egyptian frontier. A few Matildas covered the withdrawal of British and Commonwealth infantry from their fixed positions.
At Ruweisat Ridge during Auchinleck’s First Battle of El Alamein in July, four close-support Matildas mounting 3-inch howitzers to fire smoke rounds as cover for other tanks participated in a suicidal charge with Valentine tanks of the 23rd Armored Brigade with only one Matilda surviving. During the pivotal Second Battle of El Alamein at the end of October, British General Bernard Montgomery, now commanding the Eighth Army, utilized Scorpions, old Matildas fitted with revolving drums and chains to detonate mines by thrashing the ground ahead of the remaining armor and infantry. Twenty-four of these Scorpions participated in the Second Battle of El Alamein. A Matilda Baron Mark III was also developed to not only clear minefields with its flail but also to chop through barbed wire and excavate earthworks.
Supporting the Australian Infantry
In other Mediterranean locales, a squadron of 16 Matildas was shipped from England to Port Sudan to be part of the 4th RTR spearhead in the British attack against the Italians in Eritrea in early 1941. In rough terrain, this squadron covered hundreds of miles on its original tracks to help defeat a much greater Italian force, ultimately enabling the British to gain access to the Red Sea. On the island of Crete in May 1941, New Zealand General Bernard Freyberg had nine Matildas from the 7th RTR that were shipped from North Africa. However, these tanks were lost when the island fell to the Germans in late May 1941.
In the Pacific Theater, Australian forces obtained more than 400 Matildas from Britain and New Zealand between 1942 and 1944. Matilda A12s assisted Australian infantry in New Guinea, Bougainville, Tarakan, the Labuan Islands, and northern Borneo. These infantry tanks fought on roads no wider than jungle tracks. Additionally, the Matilda CS variant with its 3-inch howitzer proved effective against Japanese bunkers.
The Australians installed a telephone set on the rear of the Matilda’s hull, which enabled squad and platoon commanders to directly communicate with the tankers when they were buttoned up. During interrogations after the war, it became apparent that Japanese defenders often fled from their fortifications rather than confront these Matilda bunker busters.
This article by Jon Diamond originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons