The heaviest tank used by the western Allies, the Churchill Infantry Tank proved very useful in spite of some notable deficiencies.
Let’s take a quick look at an important part of the British arsenal.
Just before the start of World War II the British Army was looking for an upgrade of the current Matilda and Valentine Infantry tanks. The idea of an Infantry Tank was for a heavily armored vehicle that could operate and penetrate in the vicinity of World War I style front trenches. So while the British specified Cavalry tanks to be fast to exploit breakthroughs, the Infantry tank was not about such mobility; but it could climb, cross or crush any obstacle.
The design that became the Churchill really didn’t take shape however until after Dunkirk. That was a critical event in defining the Army’s needs. They now had fresh, modern combat experience, the country was in dire peril, and the Army had just lost virtually all of its armor.
So the new tank became a very high priority. And its development was rushed. The first Churchill Mk I entered service summer of 1941.
The freshly printed operating manuals included many pages of errata, and the friendly disclaimer “all those things that are not as they should be will be put right”. The rush was desperate!
Those first Mk I Churchills had a 2 pounder main gun like all other current British tanks, and 75 mm howitzer in the hull for high explosive ordnance. The howitzer was deleted after the first Mark (a bow machine gun replaced it), and the 2 pdr was replaced with a much improved 6 pdr in the Mk III. Many Churchills were converted to the American 75 (as used in the Sherman) which had better high explosive performance but lesser anti-armor. The Mk III and Mk IV Churchill saw service in North Africa starting at the second Battle of El Alemain (October 1942). The heavy tank showed an ability to take a serious pounding and could shrug off attacks from Panzer III or Panzer IV, one example boasted over 80 shell strikes. In April of 1943 a Churchill disabled a Tiger I, for the first kill of any type scored against a Tiger. (That Tiger today is at the Tank Museum in Dorset and is the only functioning Tiger in the world). Only one Churchill was lost in combat in North Africa (hit in the engine, destroyed by fire).
On the down side, the Churchill was slow. Cruising at 10 mph (maximum 17 mph) it often could not keep up in the pursuit phase of an offensive.
Later Marks were more heavily armored. Eventually more heavily armored than a Tiger, but slightly less than a King Tiger. By Churchill Mk VI the American 75 became the standard gun. Its engine and transmission were never improved, so it got even slower. It was seriously discussed dropping the tank altogether because of its slow speed, and building only Cromwells in the later part of the War. But Infantry Divisions did love the heavy support it provided, and the Churchill remained active and in production to the end of the War.
This example is a Crocodile variant. That was a very popular modification that involved replacing the bow machine gun with a flame thrower. It was one of “Hobart’s Funnies”, vehicles modified for a variety of special purposes under the oversight of Major General Percy Hobart. During the run-up to Operation Overlord, experiences from past invasions were closely examined and equipment needs of all sorts were looked at. General Hobart was specifically tasked with armored fighting vehicles. Ultimately 900 Crocodile modification kits were made for Churchill Mk VIIs (Total Churchill production was over 5600, 1400 of those were Mk VIIs).
The Crocodile involved an armored trailer for fuel, that meant 90 seconds of flame out to 150 yards if conditions were ideal. The trailer had to be pressurized prior to use, which took about 15 minutes. The trailer would not stay pressurized for very long, so planning ahead was required. The fuel then traveled through an armored line along the belly of the tank before entering the driving compartment where the nozzle was aimed. A spark plug at the end of the “barrel” ignited the fuel. The fuel was a British concoction with similar properties to Napalm. The trailer was armored against small arms only, but it could be easily disconnected if damaged, or even if empty to be reclaimed and refilled by support units.
A few comments about this tank. It was indeed named for the Prime Minister, which is extra appropriate because Winston Churchill was THE primary political sponsor of the very first tank in World War I. Funny how this is practically a footnote among his accomplishments. When the early Churchill tanks proved to be so riddled with problems, Churchill quipped (to Field Marshall Jan Smuts) “that is the tank they named after me when they found out it was no damn good!”
As previously mentioned, production of the Churchill was almost dropped in favor of the Cromwell. The Cromwell was lighter and faster, and overall more suitable for mobile warfare. This all goes back to the pre-War British doctrine that split Infantry and Cavalry tanks. Field Marshall Montgomery very much wanted an all purpose “Main Battle Tank”, during the War this often translated into just wanting Shermans. Post-War the Centurion, which was in development towards the end of WWII, finally met this need.
This is the Tamiya kit.
An excellent account of a tank which i knew very little about. “Hobart’s Funnies” saved a great many British and Allied lives on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. I’m fairly sure that I can remember one of them with chains which were used to detonate mines and to clear a path through minrfields.
I forgot to say that I would have clicked “LIke” but WordPress refused my click for some unknown reason.
That’s strange! The ways of WordPress are mysterious to mere mortals…
Yes there was the “crab”, for flailing mines, recovery vehicles, bridging tanks… quite an interesting assortment!
I think the Churchill often escapes notice because it was often supporting the slow, steady infantry instead of making the dashing breakthroughs.
Excellent build. I did the same one in 1/35th. Back in the day there was one local builder (far more talented than me) who did several of the Sherman variations of the “Funnies” in 1/35th, including the flail. A lot of people consider it an American failing that they didn’t learn from their British counterparts and have specialized tanks for the problems the British knew from Dieppe that they’d need to overcome.
Now the Americans did have several flame throwing variants of the Sherman, employed far more in the Pacific. Sadly the Japanese didn’t usually get the oft employed “mistake” in the European theater of the operator “accidentally” forgetting to ignite that first shot, dousing the enemy in napalm, but giving them one brief chance to surrender en masse before the second blast.
Wasn’t the “DD” the only funny used by the US? At least that was its origin. That is one I’d love to see in my scale!
But yeah, I usually see that described as a mistake. I believe there was a US Army flame thrower mod for the Sherman that was less effective? (my knowledge of armor is always shallower!) Later the USMC had their own sort that worked better… I think…
I hadn’t heard of that “mistake” before! Dark comedy. I’m guessing the mistake happened less often after the Battle of the Bulge (Malmedy)?
I’ve read several accounts of crewmen or flamethrower operators who thought is was actually sometimes more effective to douse the target first, because even if you missed the opening or only got a small bit through just the smell was enough to make the defenders panic. I’m sure the “mistake” was employed less in the heat of battle while under fire. And yes, the Marine’s variant was apparently brutally effective in the Pacific.
I think the Americans eventually adopted the minesweeper version. In addition the Americans also started putting “hedge cutters” on their tanks made from the German beach obstacles so they could simply cut through the hedge rows of Normandy rather than try to drive over exposing their weak belly armor.
Oh yeah I’ve seen the hedge cutters! Quite clever. Too bad that one didn’t occur to anyone before they were in the thick of it.
One funny thing I’ve noticed over the years, not sure why it really jumped out at me when doing this post.
But it seems to me the UK must have been in the process of switching over to the metric system during the War. So many “official” measures on equipment were done in metric (and of course when preparing that latest Spitfire post I noted the whole difference between the Spitfire Mk IX and Mk XVI was the use of Imperial measurements on the US built Packard Merlin on the Mk XVI). But personal anecdotes are almost always expressed in Imperial. Certainly feet and miles were still in common use, less sure about others. Pretty sure Fighter Command even used (thousands of) feet and miles for radar guided intercepts.
In this case, my primary source was using miles per hour on speed. And British artillery was still expressed in weight in pounds of the round. While the US Army used metric for theirs! Go figure…