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Monday, 29 June 2020

The development of British Armoured Fighting Vehicles from 1945 to 1970

I had always understood that at the end of the Second World War, the British Army's armoured formations were mainly equipped with the ubiquitous Sherman tank in several different versions, and a number of British-built Cruiser and Infantry tanks, namely the Cromwell, Comet, and the Churchill. In the wings were the Centurion (which was entering service as the war ended) and an updated version of the Churchill tank known as the Black Prince.

It was my belief that soon after the end of the war, a decision was made to replace the former Cruiser and Infantry tank designations with a new Universal tank, which was the Centurion. Some of the others continued in service with the Territorial Army or in specialised roles within the Regular Army, but it was the Centurion that formed the backbone of Britain's tank force until the introduction of the Chieftain. At one point, a heavy 'tank killer' armed with a 120mm gun was brought into limited service to support the Centurions, but only a few of these Conqueror tanks were built, and they were replaced when new Centurions armed with the L5 105mm gun began to be produced.

I was aware that there had been some experimental tanks built during this period, but it always seemed that these were never intended to enter service, and that the progression from Centurion to Chieftain, and then on to Challenger had been one of seamless development. How wrong I was, and David Lister's book THE DARK AGES OF TANKS: BRITAIN’S LOST ARMOUR 1945-1970 throws much-need light into what turns out to have been a much more interesting and diverse history than I was heretofore aware of.


The book is split into four part and a total of fifteen chapters:
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Armour of the Line
    • Chapter 1: The End
    • Chapter 2: A Tank for All
    • Chapter 3: Universal Engineering
    • Chapter 4: Flame in the Dark
    • Chapter 5: Conquering Cancellation
    • Chapter 6: Firepower is Chief
  • Part 2: Light Armour
    • Chapter 7: Light is Right
    • Chapter 8: The Prodigal Son
    • Chapter 9: Reach for the Skies
    • Chapter 10: The Last Success
  • Part 3: Infantry Armour
    • Chapter 11: The Smallest Enigma
    • Chapter 12: The Return of the Infantry Tank
  • Part 4: War Rocket
    • Chapter 13: The Time of Giants
    • Chapter 14: Swings and Roundabouts
    • Chapter 15: Foiled Again
Until I read this book, I'd never been aware that the Centurion was the forerunner of a larger, muli-role tank (the A.45) that was intended to come into service in the early 1950s. It was also known as the FV200, and would have been the basis of a whole range of AFVs:
  • FV201: Gun tank, armed with a 20-pounder gun
  • FV202: AVRE(T) [Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers, with a turret], armed with a 6.5-inch Breech-loading gun
  • FV203: AVRE(L) [Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers, with a launcher. This was fitted with a trackway and ramps so that it could be used to bridge a gap, and had the capability to carry fascines and a twelve-man demolition party!]
  • FV204: Flail gun tank
  • FV205: Self-propelled medium anti-tank gun, armed with a 4.5-inch gun
  • FV206: Self-propelled medium artillery
  • FV207: Self-propelled heavy artillery
  • FV208: Bridge-layer
  • FV209: Armoured recovery vehicle
  • FV210: Heavy artillery tractor
  • FV211: Medium artillery tractor
  • FV212: Heavy armoured personnel carrier
Although the FV201 looked like an enlarged Centurion, the chassis had eight road wheels, and resembled that used for the FV214 Conqueror heavy tank. It was also the basis of the FV215 tank, which would have had its engines mounted at the front of the vehicle so that it could carry a super-heavy gun (183mm/7.2-inch calibre!) in a turret at the rear.
A prototype A.45/FV201 Universal tank.
An FV214 Conqueror tank.
What do you get when you put a Centurion turret of a Conqueror hull? An FV221 Caernarvon tank!
Alongside the FV200, the British tried to develop FV300 light tank and various associated self-propelled guns. Although this project was cancelled in 1953, Vickers persisted with the design of the chassis, which later formed the basis of the very successful FV432 armoured personnel carrier and its derivatives. All of this is covered in detail in the first part of the book, and the second part looks at the various light armoured fighting vehicles developed during the year up to 1970. These include the Contentious light tank, which was designed under the aegis of Project Prodigal. This was to be an air-portable tank, that could – if the need arose – be dropped by parachute! As part of the work undertake under Project Prodigal, a test rig was built using parts from a Comet tank to see if it was possible to design a tank with a limited traverse gun that could be elevated using the vehicle’s suspension. In some ways this can be seen as an early example of the concept that Sweden developed into the Stridsvagn 103 (Strv 103) or S-Tank.
The Comet tank test rig that was used during the development of the abortive Project Prodigal FV4401 Contentious tank.
One interesting project that is also covered in this part of the book is the P.35 ‘Jumping Jeep’, which was fitted with small lift engines designed to allow it to ‘jump’ short distances over obstacles. An armoured anti-tank version – which was to be fitted with Vickers Vigilant missiles – was even proposed. Needless to say, this project never came to fruition. The third part examines the development of the Armoured Personnel Carrier, starting with the Oxford (a somewhat larger development of the wartime Universal Carrier), through the Cambridge, to the FV432 and eventually the MICV-80 … which was the forerunner of the Warrior. The final part of the book covers the development of the anti-tank missiles that became the Malkara, the Vigilant, and the Swingfire, and their associated launch vehicles. It also looks at the various British attempts to produce artillery rockets and armoured launch vehicles … and their ultimate failure.
An FV1620 Humber Hornet, armed with two Malkara anti-tank missiles. The vehicle was based on the British FV1611 Humber Pig 4 x 4 armoured truck, and carried two ready-to-fire Malkara missiles on a retractable launcher at the rear. It also carried two reloads inside the vehicle. It was air-transportable, and could be air-dropped using a cluster of six large parachutes.
After reading this book, I came to the conclusion that the various British governments, armaments manufacturers, and the Army had lots of ideas and ambitions that were severely restricted by the need for the post-war economy to recover. The funds to develop many of the projects covered in this book to fruition did not exist, and the changing internal and external political climate negated the reasons behind some of them. Some – such as the rocket projects – required levels of technical development that were not possible at the time, and suffered from what can best be described as technical over-reach. They were bound to fail … and not always gloriously! I found this book to be very informative, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about British Armoured Fighting Vehicles during the early part of the Cold War.

THE DARK AGES OF TANKS: BRITAIN’S LOST ARMOUR 1945-1970 was written by David Lister and published in 2020 by Pen & Sword Military (ISBN 978 152675 514 8).

16 comments:

  1. I have to admit that I shared your - it turns out incorrect - ideas on the development of British AFVs in this period. I'd seen something about this book but had somehow got the impression that records were sufficiently incomplete that a proper account was not possible.

    Your review shows that I was quite mistaken. Thank you for this. Looking inside the Kindle version suggested that it might well be viable when read on a laptop or larger tablet but I decided to go for the hardback (though being a cheapskate I went for the Books, etc version rather than Amazon Prime).

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    1. Mike Hall,

      I love these technical histories, but this really did open my eyes to some of the projects that were considered during the twenty five years after the end of the Second World War.

      As an aside, I remember that a model Conqueror tank was included in a Hornby OO model military train playset and that this was later copies by Hong Kong toy makers.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. I once owned a conqueror tank that rode on a bogie well wagon on my Tri-ang model railway. I guess that's the model you mean. It sometimes got involved in the engagements between airfix's infantry combat group and the Africa Korps that raged across the train board. I was very young!

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    3. Mike Hall,

      That’s the model! For some reason I thought that it was a Hornby train set, but thinking about it, it’s much more the sort of ‘special’ set that Triangle would have produced.

      Do you still own it, or has it gone to great wargames memory room.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    4. Bob,

      Long gone I'm afraid. Reading the comments I find myself feeling more nostalgic for my Dinky toys Centurian tank and tank transporter set. A lovely model even though the scale (0 guage?) was too big or too small for the model soldiers I owned. Another - of too many - models that vanished over the years,

      Mike

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    5. Mike Hall,

      I found one for sale on eBay ... and it was over £50.00!

      The Dinky Centurion could be bought on eBay for a reasonable price the last time I looked, depending upon how much they had been played with. I I now one wargamer who fights battles using 54mm figures has a fleet of them, repainted in Israeli colours.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. Hi Bob,
    Some time back I viewed a working Centurion at the Menangle Steam and Machinery Rally not far from my home. I was struck by the shear size of the Tank- they are enormous and very agile- I'd have to say the Centurion is a favorite Tank- they were used in the Vietnam War by the Australians. Cheers. KEV.

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    1. Kev Robertson (Kev),

      I’ve been lucky enough to visit Shrivenham, the home of the British Staff College. They have a huge collection of AFVs, including a King Tiger ... which is about the same size as a Challenger. It’s not until you see them at close quarters that you begin to realise just how big they are.

      I grew up as a member of the Centurion generation, and I still think that it was a great design, especially when it was armed with the L5 105mm gun.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  3. This is really interesting! Thank you, Bob. I'll need to add the book to my Amazo9n wishlist.

    Best Regards,

    Stokes

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    1. Heinz-Ulrich Von Boffke (Stokes),

      I learned a lot from this book, and it made me realise how the development for UK’s AFVs was not as straight forward as I had always thought.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  4. G'Day Bob, great review. I remember seeing a Malkara missile here at the School of Artillery - I think it was a joint Australian / UK project. Not sure how accurate it was. Does Vickers tank production get covered? I think their main market was India? Cheers Greg

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    1. Delta Coy (Greg),

      The Malkara certainly was a joint Australian-British project, and although very large, it seems to have been easier to use than many of its contemporaries. It also became the basis of the SeaCat anti-aircraft missile and Ikara anti-submarine weapon system.

      The book doesn’t cover the private venture tanks built by Vickers. They looked a bit like lightened versions of the Centurion and certainly went on to serve (and be built) in India as well as being operated by several other countries with links to the UK.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  5. Replies
    1. Geordie an Exile FoG,

      It is ... so why don’t you buy a copy as a present to yourself!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  6. Many thanks for your review. I saw this advertised but didn’t buy it but your post encouraged me to take a look. I read ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (about inter war tank development) and hoped for something similar in terms of personalities and anecdotes. The technical description is obviously well researched but I’m not enough of a rivet counter to appreciate this. However, the description of how they cobble these things together reminds me of the song “Right Said Fred” by Bernard Cribbins (https://youtu.be/eE_b6woHnNU). This is a traditional British way of engineering which has produced such technical wonders as the Morris Marina, the Austin Allegro and of course the Robin Reliant (fun fact - did you know the Delorean (Back to the Future) were built in a factory in Northern Ireland to save money?).

    Sorry. I got carried away there. Honestly, thank you for your recommendation. In return, have you read Empire of the Clouds by Hamilton-Patterson? You will enjoy yet another agonizing read about thrown away opportunities that will have you howling and gnawing on your tablet.

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    1. Steve8,

      After I wrote this review, someone I know who was involved in tank design in more recent years recommended that I read THE TANK FACTORY. It tells the history of the design teams who designed British tanks from the early days until the present. I knew that some of this had been done at a Woolwich Arsenal, but not that it moved to Fort Halstead when a Woolwich closed down.

      I have read EMPIRE OF THE CLOUDS, and can well remember some of the projects that never made it beyond the prototype stage. Perhaps the most annoying was the Fairey Delta series, which won all sorts of speed records. The data was shared with the French as part of the Concorde project ... and it is no coincidence that Dassault’s Mirage III bore a significant resemblance to the Fairey design.

      All the best,

      Bob

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