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Prime Minister on the Front Lines

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In 1941 it became clear to British tankers that the Churchill I armed with a 40 mm 2-pounder and 3” howitzer won’t remain competitive for long. Due to difficulties with developing a new weapon, the Churchill III armed with the more powerful 57 mm 6-pounder only entered production in March of 1942. These tanks gradually forced out the Churchill II, but some units kept the Churchill I as close support tanks. The low reliability of these tanks did not allow the British to test them in the desert, but an opportunity for a trial by fire soon arose.

If at first you don’t succeed…

The Churchill tanks first went into battle on August 19th, 1942, during the infamous Dieppe raid. A raid against German coastal defenses was risky, but after a series of raids including the famous raid on Saint-Nazaire, Lord Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters had all but carte blanche when it came to planning.

A Churchill II tank used in a practice amphibious landing.

Initial plans included landing 60 Churchill tanks from the Canadian 14th Calgary Tank Regiment. Tankers would land alongside specially trained engineers that would demolish anti-tank obstacles and clear a path for the tanks into the city. The Germans would not have expected heavy tanks and would have nothing prepared to combat them.

Landing untested tanks was a risky proposition in the best of times, but the Churchills showed themselves well in practice landings. The tanks confidently drove along the coast, and only large stones could jam the drive sprocket and immobilize the tanks. Wading trials held in July-August of 1942 showed that specially prepared Churchills could drive at a depth of 6 feet (1.83 meters) for ten minutes without any leaks forming.

Training began in the early summer. The 14th regiment was moved to new training grounds. On June 11-12th a test landing on a beach near Bridport was carried out in terrain similar to that of Dieppe. The results were less than ideal. The tanks landed several miles off their target and were more than an hour late. Subsequent landings held on June 22-24th were much more successful.

Due to strict secrecy the tankers were not told when they were deploying. The tanks were loaded onto landing ships on August 18th under the excuse of more training. Jock Famer, a veteran of the raid, recalls that it was clearly not just going to be another exercise. The troops were told to arm their grenades, fill their magazines, clean and oil their guns. Tank crews learned about the real target en route to the mainland. The secrecy didn’t help, as the landing force ran into a German patrol on their way to shore. Several German ships were fired upon, two sank, the rest hid in Dieppe. The landing force was lucky that the Germans had no idea who they ran into due to fog, but the coastal garrison was still put on alert.

A Churchill II from the Calgary regiment. The tankers do not yet know what they are training for.

The night time encounter jumbled British plans. The flotilla was mixed up and the boats reached the shore too late. The advance force of 500 men from the Royal Canadian Regiment was only 17 minutes behind schedule, but what crucial minutes they were. Instead of a night time attack on an unsuspecting enemy, the Canadians arrived after sunrise, facing German machine guns.

The situation could still have been salvaged, but the engineers reached the shore without their tanks. The Churchills were also late. The engineers made their way through the barbed wire covering the anti-tank obstacles, but their progress was slow due to machine gun and mortar fire.

A knocked out Churchill tank and wounded Canadians. A landing ship burns in the background.

The Churchill tanks landed 15 minutes later. 30 tanks were dispatched in total. One remained on its landing ship and another sank immediately.

Some tanks carried fascines to improve mobility on the beach. Various sources evaluate this solution as anywhere from effective to completely useless, but nevertheless while some tanks did get stuck on the beach, others moved past it. About half of the force (German sources say 16 tanks, Canadian sources say 12-15) managed to tear through the barbed wire, climb the sea wall, and enter the promenade. That was the limit of their progress. Without the ability to deal with concrete barriers blocking their way further into the city, the tanks were doomed to wander back and forth looking for a way out. Some tanks even returned to the beach to help their infantry. This was a gesture of desperation, as without tanks in the city there was no chance at victory.

Churchill tanks and a Dingo armoured car abandoned on the beaches of Dieppe. Many vehicles never made it to the city.

Royal Marines with their own tanks were sent in about two hours later. Since German artillery was still not suppressed, the landing ships sank long before they reached the shore. By 10:00 it was clear that the raid failed. The remaining tanks were not dispatched. Tanks that made it back to the shore covered the infantry’s retreat, but even the Churchill’s thick armour could not withstand enemy fire forever.

More than half of the tanks (Major Page, a veteran of the raid, counted 18) had their tracks torn by HE shells. Page’s own tank received a hit in the side that didn’t penetrate the armour but knocked out the electric system. His engine cut out five minutes later. Other tanks also received serious damage without penetration of the armour. One lost its turret traverse mechanism, one had its turret jam so tightly that it could not be unstuck even with the use of a jack. Many vehicles had their periscopes and antennae broken by bullets and shell splinters.

German troops near a knocked out Churchill. Despite suffering significant damage, none of the British tankers died inside their tanks.

As far as Page knew, no tankers died inside their tanks, with the exception of the tank that drowned. Page reported that the tankers were generally satisfied with their tanks otherwise and regretted not being able to use them properly. His own tank could not fire at the Germans due to damage, but other POWs complained about the lack of HE shells.

All crews left their vehicles at 12:25. By this point the evacuation was all but over. Only one tank crewman that landed that day returned to England. Page was captured and only liberated in the fall of 1943. The situation was quite ironic: the British were hesitant to send Churchills to the USSR lest they be discovered by the enemy and then turned around and practically gifted the Germans 30 of their newest tanks.

A German report evaluating the new British tank was composed on September 12th, 1942. According to the Germans, the tank offered nothing new or interesting. The 3” howitzer and 2-pounder gun was already known to the Germans and considered obsolete. The 6-pounder was a new weapon, but the Germans considered it inferior to the Soviet 57 mm ZIS-2 anti-tank gun. The quality of the metal was also evaluated as poor and inferior to Soviet armour. The shape of the hull was also not considered modern, as none of the tank’s armour was sloped. The Germans also considered the track links brittle and prone to breakage. According to the report, the tracks made so much noise in motion that it was impossible to hear the radio. The tanks would be forced to stop to communicate, which is when the anti-tank gunners would strike. This was a relevant instruction for future combat, as according to the report the Churchills were not knocked out by gunfire as the second rate units that made up the Dieppe garrison did not use their cannons effectively and fired from too far away.

View of Dieppe at low tide. The beach is littered with disabled vehicles and landing ships.

As almost all troops who took part in the battle either died or were captured, the British were desperate to find any information on how the Churchills performed in combat from any source. For instance, complaints made by the crews by radio were recorded. They complained about broken turret traverse mechanisms and shell casings that got stuck in the breech during extraction. There were also rumours that the tracks were torn due to the rocks found on the beach. These rumours were confirmed by a post-war survey, as the thick layer of large stones that composed the entire beach was a most inhospitable terrain for the use of tanks.

German propaganda photos of tanks littering the beach gave some credence to the rumours as well, and so the British decided to hold their own trials on December 19th. Tanks were tasked with performing complex maneuvers on a thick layer of gravel, into which they sank by 3-4 inches. The Churchills proved difficult to immobilize and continued to drive even if they bottomed out. Trials also showed that the use of fascines or special mats made from hessian cloth don’t particularly help the tanks’ mobility. It appears that the poor mobility of the Churchills at Dieppe was the fault of insufficient reconnaissance, rather than any flaw of the tank’s design.

The Germans pose on a captured Churchill tank. The failed operation gave them a perfect opportunity to study the enemy’s vehicles.

Kingforce

The British learned a lesson from their defeat and were more careful with their new tanks going forward. Six tanks were sent to North Africa to fight under close supervision.

The tanks began arriving on October 1st, 1942. On October 14th a new tank battalion was formed in Cairo under the command of Major King. In honour of the commander, it was unofficially called Kingforce. The crews learned to drive their tanks in the UK, but they had no combat experience. The commanders were the opposite: they were picked out of the ranks of experienced soldiers, but they had no prior exposure to the Churchill tank. The crews went through an intensive 4 day course of driving and servicing their tanks.

A Churchill III from the Kingforce battalion. The tank is equipped with a hessian cloth bib to protect the driver from sand.

The battalion was attached to the 7th Motor Brigade, which was subordinate to the 1st Armoured Division. The tanks first entered battle less than two weeks later, on October 24th, 1942, during the Second Battle of El Alamein. The division also used two other newcomers: the Sherman and the Crusader III. Initially, the plan was to keep the 7th brigade behind the 2nd Armoured Brigade. This was the case at first, as it was impossible to maneuver in the narrow passages made in the German minefields.

The Germans cracked the British plan and introduced their own tanks and artillery to the fight on October 25th. The 7th brigade was attacked by the German 15th Tank Division and the Italian 133rd Armoured Division Littorio. The German attack was deflected, with 14 knocked out tanks claimed. The 2nd Armoured Brigade that assisted in the defense claimed 39 knocked out German tanks in total at the cost of 24 of its own. The Germans recorded 25 losses but claimed 119 knocked out tanks, even though they had no chance to examine the battlefield. On the evening of October 26th the 7th brigade resumed its offensive towards a height codenamed Woodcock. They were soon attacked by elements of the German 21st division.

A Churchill tank from Kingforce with camouflage applied.

Fierce fighting erupted over the height. The Churchills finally saw battle, but they did not contribute much. On that day they merely fired upon Italian tanks at a range of 2000 yards (1830 meters) without effect. Peeking out of the dunes was dangerous. Major King’s tank received two 75 mm hits to the turret. Second Lieutenant Appleby’s tank received more serious damage. The front of the turret was penetrated by either a 75 mm or 88 mm shell. The tank also took five hits from 75 mm guns and 31 hits from 50 mm guns that didn’t penetrate the armour, only one 50 mm shell penetrated the air intake. The tank was also mistaken for a German and fired upon by British forces. It was hit by eight 6-pounder shots from the rear, four of which penetrated. One hit was also scored by HE. Finally, either a 50 mm or 6-pounder shell penetrated the engine compartment and the tank burned up. The tank was irreparably lost with two crewmen killed.

On October 28th the division was recalled to prepare for a decisive offensive. The 1st Armoured Division collected an impressive force by November 1st. The 8th Armoured Brigade was attached to the formation in addition to the 2nd Armoured and 7th Motor. The division went into battle on the following day. The 7th Motor Brigade ended up at Tel el Aqqaqir early in the morning sandwiched between the two armoured divisions. The Germans counterattacked almost immediately. The 15th and 21st Tank Divisions received the order to attack the British in full force at 12:40. A major battle erupted where the Churchills finally had a chance to prove themselves. British tankers reported that German anti-tank guns helplessly fired on them at a range of 1000 yards (914 meters).

Churchill III tanks from Kingforce driving into battle.

One tank had its gun jam after the first shot. Second Lieutenant Howard’s tank was disabled by two 50 mm shells to the idler. The immobilized Churchill was subjected to a vicious pounding. The main gun and coaxial machine gun were disabled, an HE shell knocked off the commander’s periscope and wounded Howard in the eye. Other Churchills also weathered a storm of shells. A shell flew into the open driver’s observation port in King’s tank, after which the crew evacuated, but was later able to re-enter their tank and continue fighting. Corporal MacAffree’s tank took 14 hits that left dents up to 4 inches (100 mm) deep without penetrating the armour. Due to deformations the driver’s vision port could no longer close and the turret was hard to rotate, but the tank remained in action.

Another tank took nine hits at the very start of the battle, one of which jammed the turret, and so did not participate in the fighting. Overall the Churchills reported five German tanks and three guns knocked out. The 7th Motor Brigade resumed its advance in the morning, the burned out and immobilized tanks had to be left behind. Rommel ordered his tank divisions to retreat and the British had no time to wait. The enemy had to be pursued. The Churchills did not perform well on the long march. After 50 miles (80 km) one tank started experiencing engine trouble and lost charge in its batteries. The remaining three tanks successfully completed the 73 mile (117 km) journey in seven hours.

The Churchill tanks proved themselves to be resilient in battle, capable of withstanding hits from many 50 mm and 75 mm shells, but they were not invincible.

The tanks proved themselves resilient. The Churchill could easily withstand a hit from 50 mm shells, but they could also disable the armament, knock off equipment mounted on the armour, and jam the turret. In three cases 50 mm shells ricocheted off the turret and penetrated the hull roof. The running gear was very resilient as well and even direct hits from 50 mm shells could not stop the tank, with the exception of the tank with a destroyed idler.

In two cases 50 mm shells partially dislodged the hull machine gun mount. HE shells could break off open hatch flaps. The Churchill tanks that survived the battles also had to be serviced. The Wireless Set No.19 radio showed itself very poorly. Reports indicated that knobs would fall off when the tanks were hit. Fuses also had to be replaced often.

The three surviving tanks were loaded up on trailers to be shipped back to Cairo on November 8th. One tank was repaired there, two more were sent to Rafa with the 1st Armoured Brigade where they were used for training: one at a proving grounds and one at the armour school. Churchill tanks that could not be repaired were also sent to the proving grounds to serve as targets during trials of German anti-tank guns.

A column of German POWs marches past parked Churchills.

Favourable conclusions were drawn from these battles. The tanks could be confidently used ahead of Shermans and withstand fire from enemy anti-tank guns. Mechanical defects could be excused due to inexperienced crews. The claim that the gunner’s periscope impedes observation from the commander’s cupola was also written off due to inexperience.

The two tanks proved much more reliable than the two Churchill I tanks tested in North Africa earlier. The British troops never held a tank in such high esteem, but they still had complaints. Recommendations were made to position the armour at a slope, give the crews HE shells to combat anti-tank guns, and improve protection of the idlers. Some officers suggested attaching SPGs to Churchills units as poor visibility did not allow the tanks to fire at small targets.

The Churchill spreads its wings

As a result of the trial deployment in North Africa a decision was made to send more Churchills. The 25th Army Tank Brigade was equipped with these tanks. This brigade was composed of three regiments: North Irish Horse, 51st RTR, and 152nd Regiment RAC. These regiments also loved the new Churchills. The remanufacturing program targeting early design flaws was said to have given good results. A 24 hour long march undertaken by 22 tanks was presented as evidence. The tanks travelled for 70 miles (112 km) without a serious defect, and seven of them drove for 103 miles (165 km) in this time. The speed was limited to 12 mph (19 kph) to save on wear. Even at this speed the tanks were hungry, with fuel economy of half a mile to the gallon (470 L per 100 km).

A Churchill III tank with field applied camouflage in Tunisia.

Churchill tanks could drive along muddy roads in the rainy season that other tanks could not traverse, albeit with some difficulty. A new issue was encountered: mud would pile up under the fenders and they would bulge upwards, making it impossible to traverse the turret. Some units removed the track skids that were installed during the remanufacturing process. This helped the tracks squeeze out some of the mud while driving. A whole page of complaints about the fenders was composed. Another defect of the tanks became apparent during the rainy season: the hatches sealed poorly and let through more water than any other tank in British service.

Driving the tank was difficult and tiring despite its mobility. The hydraulic power steering actuators were hard to use and demanded constant adjustment. The hydraulic fluid that arrived was of mediocre quality. The engines were more reliable than those of Churchill tanks tested a year prior, but still required careful handling and thorough care. It took 24-30 hours to replace one engine. The reliability still left much to be desired, as a Churchill could only drive 500 miles (800 km) before refurbishment. The manufacturer promised a distance of 800 miles (1290 km) by the end of the year.

A Churchill III without fenders. Their design left much to be desired.

The tanks proved themselves mobile fortresses that could hold any position that infantry could occupy. The Churchills could deflect enemy attacks and withstand mortar fire. The armour could only be penetrated by new 75 mm guns and 88 mm AA guns, but it was weakened by various hatches and ports. The cast armour was considered less reliable than rolled. It was not long before crews started to hang spare track links from their tanks for extra protection.

The idlers remained a weak point, as they were vulnerable to fire and and Churchills were immobilized if they were destroyed. HE shells could also damage the rest of the running gear, but it was not as vulnerable. A tank with three missing road wheels in a row was still capable of moving.

Italian Bersaglieri and a captured Churchill III in Tunisia. The photo shows severe damage to the fenders.

The 6-pounder guns proved themselves fairly reliable, with the exception of the recuperator and Bowden cables. These defects were the fault of poor assembly quality, according to the tankers. Initially the crews preferred the free style of gun elevation with a shoulder stock, but with time they admitted that geared elevation was superior. There was no other choice when firing HE ammunition.

Despite recommendations to the contrary, HE shells were used in combat. The shells performed poorly. The trajectory was too flat, and the explosion from the tiny charge was so small that at 1300 yards (1200 meters) it could no longer be seen, making fire correction impossible. The turret traverse was also a source of problems. The chain linkage was too weak and the whole gearbox had to be removed if it broke. Spare gearboxes were hard to come by in North Africa.

A commander’s cupola and loader’s hatch on a Churchill III tank.

The coaxial machine gun was well liked, but it jammed due to the belt tilting. Units experimented with different types of skids to combat this defect. The hull machine gun was considered an important tool for demoralizing enemy infantry. In one battle, seven out of nine tanks from the North Irish Horse Regiment expended all machine gun ammunition. The tankers complained that the machine gun mounts were hand-tuned and it was not always possible to swap the coaxial and hull machine guns. The 2” bomb thrower was considered completely useless due to its short range. The ventilation in the tank was considered unsatisfactory, especially for the machine gunner.

Commanders complained about the cupola, which was hard to rotate, but praised the gunner’s periscope. Even though it blocked the commander’s vision, a second pair of eyes on the battlefield was priceless. On the other hand, the driver’s vision was insufficient. He could not see side to side and depended entirely on the other crewmen for navigation, as a result of which the tanks sometimes collided. The height of the periscope had to be made adjustable, as it was hard for some drivers to use. The driver’s observation port was not well liked. Drivers expressed the desire to get rid of it in exchange for an extra periscope or two.

The driver’s periscope left much to be desired, but it was still better than his observation port.

All of the crew workspaces were uncomfortable and the seats were too small. The commander’s seat was criticized most of all. It could not be adjusted and was not located directly under the cupola. The loader’s seat was too flimsy and fell off often. Drivers also complained about the location of their instruments and tools. They were lucky to have them at all, as due to supply issues Churchill tanks sometimes arrived in North Africa without them.

Many complaints were also linked to radios. The capacitors they used were of poor quality. The chargers for batteries worked badly, if they worked at all. The antenna could not fold down, which led to it breaking off. On some tanks merely opening the loader’s hatch could break off the antenna.

Churchill I and III tanks driving into battle, Tunisia, 1943.

In general, the crews liked their tanks and the infantry was encouraged by their presence on the battlefield. The tank was far from perfection, but context is important. British tank building had little to boast about in 1942-43, and even this flawed tank was an achievement. A report by the War Cabinet on the difference between predictions made in 1942 and actual results achieved in 1943 says as much: “apart from the Valentine in Russia and the limited use of the Churchill in Tunisia no British tanks during 1943 have been considered worthy of a place in the main battles.”

Sources:
  • Canadian Military Headquarters, London (1939–1947) RG 24 C 2
  • The National Archives, Great Britain
  • David Fletcher. Churchill Infantry Tank — Osprey Publishing, 2019
  • David O'Keefe. One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada's Tragedy at Dieppe — Knopf Canada, 2013
  • Charles Perry Stacey. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War. Volume I — Cloutier, 1956
  • Pier Paolo Battistelli. Battle Story: El Alamein 1942 — Spellmount, 2012
  • Military History Visualized, German Thoughts on the Churchill Tank, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xu3KAe-S6cc
This article was originally published on Warspot.net

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