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Short-Term Queen of the Desert

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The Matilda is arguably the most famous British tank of WWII. This fame is well deserved. At the time of its appearance this slow moving but thickly armoured tank was the best the British industry could give its troops. However, its service with the British army was brief. By mid-1942, these tanks began to leave the stage to make room for American tanks.


Bigger infantry tank

The British tank forces slowly began to wake from their five year stasis in 1934. In many ways, this became possible due to the work of Sir Percy Hobart, who became the inspector of the Royal Armoured Corps in 1934. At the same time, Lieutenant General Sir Hugh Ellis took the post of Chief of Ordnance. The 1930s were a time of experiments, and this applied to the British armoured force in full. New management brought with it new ideas that radically changed the face of British tanks fairly quickly.

The Medium Tank A7E3 laid the foundation for the new infantry tank.

The overall system of British tank forces in the mid-30s followed worldwide tendencies. The backbone of the force was composed of medium tanks. However, their development lagged behind. A worthwhile replacement for the ageing Medium Tanks Mk.I and Mk.II was never found, and only three Medium Tanks Mk.III were ever built. The British were slowly transitioning from tankettes to more effective light tanks. These vehicles became the most popular pre-war British tanks.

The British were closely following developments in other countries while working on their light tanks with bulletproof armour. This was especially true for France, which had the largest tank fleet in the world. The French also had many issues with their tank development, but they took a different path. Instead of mobility, they placed their bets on armour, taking into account their experience in WWI. The symbol of the French tank industry in the early 1930s was the Renault NC. Even though it was never adopted into service by the army, it was widely advertised.

The first experimental Infantry Tank A12E1, summer of 1938.

The Vickers-Armstrongs and Carden-Loyd companies received an order for a tank similar to the Renault NC in 1934. This tank would have 25 mm of armour, a top speed of 16 kph, and either a 7.62 or a 12.7 mm machinegun. Further development of this concept resulted in the A11 tank, or the Infantry Tank Mk.I.

In parallel, requirements for a larger tank were developed. Its armour and top speed were the same, but it would be armed with a more powerful weapon. The 2-pounder 40 mm gun that was under development at Vickers-Armstrongs and the Royal Arsenal Woolwich at the time was proposed as such a weapon. This gun was designed to replace the 3-pounder 47 mm gun whose penetration was already lacking. 25 mm of armour was too much for this gun, while the new gun could penetrate 37 mm of armour at 60 degrees from 457 meters.

The exhaust pipes were moved up as far as possible to increase fording depth.

Unlike the Infantry Tank Mk.I, Vickers-Armstrongs did not receive the order for a medium infantry tank. The development remained at Royal Arsenal Woolwich. This was not the first such work done at the arsenal. One can imagine that the A12 was revenge for the competition with Vickers since the start of the 1920s.

Work on a gun tank stalled. The first drafts appeared only in September of 1936, when the A11E1 was already entering trials. In the meantime, requirements were increased. The A11's armour had to be 60 mm thick, and the project that was now called A12 had to have 75 mm of armour.

The V-shaped front hull that migrated from the Infantry Tank Mk.I was concealed by toolboxes built into the sides.

There is information that the A12 project was initially called Matilda Senior. This is a rather interesting discussion. This index was never used in correspondence. However, some influence from the A11 can be seen. The characteristic V-shape in the front of the hull indicates that the designers were familiar with the Leslie Little's work.

However, the Arsenal had no shortage of experience with tank design. This was true for the suspension as well. One should not forget that assembly of experimental A6 medium tanks happened here, as did the development of the A7 medium tank. The A12 was born from these developments. There are also claims that the "Japanese suspension" from the Japanese-built Medium Tank Mk.C was used. In reality, the same suspension was used by Vickers on a number of export vehicles. A similar suspension was also used on the A6. Woolwich did not reinvent the wheel and used a number of tried and true ideas. This was also true for the suspension covered with spaced armour.

The power plant, made from two AEC A183/A184 engines, repeated the concept that was tested on the A7E3.

While the suspension looks suspect, a number of components migrated wholesale from the A7E3 tank, built at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich. That tank was yet another failed attempt to build a replacement for the Medium Tank Mk.II. Even though work on that tank stopped in 1937, it had a great influence on British tank building. Components designed for this tank can be found in many later vehicles. This was also true for the A12.

The most characteristic reused component was the powerplant with two AEC engines that was tried out on the A7E3. This system has a good reason for existing. The British had a lot of issues with tank engines, and a pair of AEC bus engines partially resolved the issue of engine supplies. The A12 was equipped with the 6.75 L AEC A183/A184 engine. The Wilson planetary mechanism was also taken from the A7E3, as were the tracks and a number of other elements. Therefore, one can only say that the A12 was a further development of the A11 with a number of caveats.
The suspension as well as the chassis in general was a further development of past Vickers and Royal Arsenal Woolwich designs.

A significant change in the A12 from previous Royal Arsenal Woolwich designs was that it only designed the tank. The Vulcan Foundry Limited company from Lancashire was charged with the production. Contract T/3951 for two prototypes costing 30,000 pounds Sterling was signed in 1937.

Initially, the British military was uncertain in their choice of armament for the new tank. One variant had two machineguns in the turret, but it was rejected. The main variant was one 2-pounder gun in the turret with a coaxial Vickers machinegun. This type of mount was also used on the Medium Tank A7E3.

As for the turret, it was designed anew. Like on the A7E3, it fit three people, but it had nothing to do with the arsenal's past designs. The turret and hull were designed in tight cooperation with Vulcan to ensure that it was within the company's power to build it. As a result, the A12 was the first British tank that used widespread casting. The A11 only had a cast turret, while the A12 also had a large portion of its hull cast. Otherwise, the design was standard for British tanks of the time. It was assembled on rails using rivets. 

The Infantry Tank Mk.II turret went into production like this. However, the variant with a Vickers gun did not last for long in production.

The first experimental prototype, indexed A12E1, was sent to the Mechanical Warfare Experimental Establishment (MWEE) on April 11th, 1938. The tank received registration numbers T.3421 and MHM 786. The tank was on a completely different level than the A11. While it was still slow, the top speed of 24 kph on a highway and 15 kph off-road was leaps and bounds over the 12.9 kph that was the limit of the Infantry Tank Mk.I.

More importantly, it was a full fledged fighting machine that combined thick armour and adequate armament for the time. However, there was one caveat. Like with the 3-pounder gun, the 2-pounder did not have an HE round. British doctrine dictated that the tank's machinegun was enough to fight infantry, and the cannon was only for fighting tanks.

Joint trials of the Infantry Tank Mk.II and Infantry Tank Mk.III in early 1940.

Trials at MWEE were successful. The tank confidently travelled a distance of 1000 miles. However, issues of traction were discovered even at this early stage. In August of 1938, the A12E1 was sent to Lulworth. On December 15th, a new prototype arrived at Farnborough, indexed Infantry Tank A12E2. The prototypes spent winter-spring of 1939 at Vulcan factories, where they were repaired and modernized. However, it was clear by June of 1938 that the tank will go into production. The tank was accepted into service as the Infantry Tank Mk.II.

The many faces of Matilda

The first contract for 140 Infantry Tank Mk.II tanks, T5115, was signed in June of 1938, but the company was not the only producer of this tank. The situation Europe was starting to heat up, and Great Britain was not ready for war with Germany. The widely known policy of appeasement had one end goal: to win time for British industry to move to wartime footing.

It's nor surprising that in August of 1938 contract T5694 was signed for 40 more Infantry Tanks Mk.II. It was given to the Ruston & Hornsby Ltd. manufacturing company. Nearly at the same time, contract T5653 was signed with John Fowler & Co. for another 40 tanks. London, Midland, and Scottish Railway company (LMS) was next. Contract T5741 ordered 120 more tanks. Another railway company, North British Locomotive Company (NBL) from Glasgow received contract T6904 for 50 tanks. The last producer in this list was the Harland & Wolff Ltd. shipbuilding company from Belfast. Contract T6905 signed with them ordered 130 Infantry Tanks Mk.II. This impressive list of manufacturers shows how seriously the War Office treated this tank.

Infantry Tank Mk.II in production. The factories had trouble spinning up production at first, but the overall production rate was high thanks to six factories working on the tank at once, at least for British industry.

Vulcan had the lead role in further development of the A12's design. They composed technical documentation that was then sent to the rest of the factories. It's not surprising that Vulcan was the first to complete the tank. Over a year went by between the initial contract and putting the Infantry Tank Mk.II into production. Preparation for manufacturing and finding subcontractors for components took all this time. In addition, Vulcan carefully reviewed the results of trials and introduced changes into the tank's design. In part, the complex exhaust system was replaced and a number of hull components were simplified. 

One of the first Infantry Tanks Mk.IIA.

The launch of the Infantry Tank Mk.II coincided with the start of WWII. The first tanks rolled out of the factory in September of 1939. One of the consequences of the trials was a "lifted" suspension. The cause of this was that the spaced armour clipped the ground while driving off the road.

According to some documents that were obtained by the Red Army's GABTU, 24 tanks were built during the first quarter. These included the Infantry Tanks Mk.II that were built at LMS starting with December of 1939. 27 more tanks were built in the first quarter of 1940. The situation only changed in the second quarter. Production at Harland & Wolff and Ruston & Hornsby began in March, NBL joined in in May, and John Fowler in June. As a result, the number of produced tanks increased to 101.

September 1940, trials at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

The Infantry Tank Mk.II did not last long in its initial configuration. The BESA tank machinegun was accepted into service with the British army in 1939. This was a British adaptation of the Czechoslovakian ZB.53 mounted machinegun. Unlike the Vickers gun with a massive water cooling jacket, the BESA was air cooled. The new machinegun was installed on the new tank starting with the spring of 1940, which demanded a change to the turret and gun mount. 85 Infantry Tanks Mk.II were built in this way, 55 of them at Vulcan (T.6729-T.6783) and 30 at LMS (T.6909-T.6938).

As with other tanks that received the BESA machinegun, the index was changed. The improved tanks received the index Infantry Tank Mk.IIA. This version was produced until the summer of 1941, and these were the tanks destined to become the "Queen of the Desert".

The stamped tracks with additional grousers were not uncommon. This photo was taken in early 1941 in Africa.

After the British Expeditionary Forces received a crushing defeat in France, the British army lost a large amount of tanks, including 23 Infantry Tanks Mk.II. In total, British industry delivered 356 infantry tanks in 1940. The British were seriously afraid of a German landing, and their rates of production were not a cause for optimism. In July of 1940, Great Britain turned to the United States with a proposal to produce the Infantry Tank Mk.IIA overseas. To demonstrate the vehicle, tank T.7861 from the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, "Grampus", was sent to the US, accompanied by Junior Lieutenant Knott.

After trials at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the Americans refused to produce the tank, proposing their own Medium Tank M3 instead, which were currently under development. The British tank was sent to Canada, where it is preserved to this day at Base Borden.

The tank played its part, however. The Americans took note of the dual diesel powerplant. With the aid of Carr, a member of the British commission, a similar component was made with American GMC diesel engines. Thus was born the General Motors 6046, which was used on M3A3, M3A5, and M4A2 medium tanks. The latter were actively used in the British army under the name Sherman III, which received 5041 such vehicles.

The appearance of Ford tracks did not entirely force out initial models.

The story with tracks deserves a separate mention. As mentioned above, stock track links behaved poorly off paved roads. Nevertheless, they were put into production at Ruston & Hornsby. The mistake revealed itself in the winter of 1939-40, when it turned out that the grip on icy roads and snow is very poor. To resolve this issue, grousers were welded onto every track link.

The mobility was improved, but another issue surfaced. It turned out that this track has a lifespan of less than 500 km. An improved design with one large spur and one small was introduced. This design had a greater lifespan, but was less common.

Three types of tanks on one photo. The first has Ford type track links with additional grousers.

Five types of track links entered trials in March of 1941. In addition to the aforementioned types, the Lepaz T.D. 1195 was introduced. The tank with these track links had the lowest speed, 17.7 kph, but had the best traction. The most balanced design was the Ford cast track link, also known as the Ford Box. The average speed of the tank was reduced from 20.6 to 20.1 kph, but it had very good traction. After some improvements, this design was used as the main track link.

Nevertheless, Ruston & Hornsby track links were still used on a portion of the tanks. Many of them can be seen on photos of tanks sent to the USSR. According to correspondence, another type of stamped track links that also went into production was also developed.

 Leyland E148/E149 engines, the main feature of the Infantry Tank Mk.IIA* or Matilda III.

The look of the tank changed with time. By the summer of 1940 the "lifted" suspension was no longer in use, and instead of one headlight two were used. The front and rear mudflaps that quickly broke off during use were removed. However, the Infantry Tank Mk.II changed most radically in the spring of 1941. A pair of  Leyland E148/E149 diesel motors was used instead of AEC A183/A184. These 6.8 L 95 hp engines also came from buses.

The difference between Matilda II and Matilda III exhaust systems.

Production of tanks with Leyland engines began in May of 1941. They received the index Infantry Tank Mk.IIA*. These tanks can be distinguished by a new exhaust system and accompanying changes to the rear of the tank. The new model didn't stop some factories from producing the old one. For instance, tank number T.10459 currently on display at Bovington was produced at NBL on May 28th, 1941. This is a Mk.IIA tank, even though production of the Mk.IIA* already began.

One of the first Matilda III tanks on maneuvers, May 1941. As you can see, this tank still used old track links.

The Mk.IIA* had a large number of changes, including the name of the tank. This was due to the simplification of the names of the tanks that coincided with the start of American Lend Lease aid. This happened in May-June of 1941, when the Infantry Tank Mk.II received the name "Matilda". This name was the cause of many arguments, and in many historical publications, including very reputable ones, this tank is named incorrectly. The new name structure was as follows:
  • Infantry Tank Mk.II - Matilda I
  • Infantry Tank Mk.IIA - Matilda II
  • Infantry Tank Mk.IIA* - Matilda III
However, old indexes were still sometimes used.


Matilda III CS on maneuvers, September 1941. The Parrish-Lakeman Mounting AA mount seen here was installed on infantry and cruiser tanks starting with 1941.

The name wasn't the only thing that changed. The design kept changing as the tank was produced. Leyland E148/E149 engines were replaced with the Leyland E164/E165. The running gear also changed. Instead of support rollers, later model tanks used rails. The gun mantlet was altered somewhat as a result of battle experience. A bulge above the driver's vision port reduced the changes of him being hit with shells. The antenna mount changed after the Wireless Set No.19 entered use.

In addition, the Matilda III CS was introduced in June of 1941, armed with a 76 mm howitzer instead of a 2-pounder gun. It could only fire smoke and HE shells.

Additional fuel tank introduced on the Matilda III.

A major change to the look of the Matilda III was introduced at the tail end of its production. Since the main theater of war at the time was North Africa, the cruising range had to be increased. At first, crews added holders for fuel cans on their own. Near the end of production tanks were equipped with a 135 L external fuel tank in the rear. The fuel tank was linked to the fuel system. Later, a significant number of Matilda II tanks, such as the one in Bovington, was modernized to the level of the Matilda III.

Production of the Matilda IV, 1942. The main feature of the new variant, a lowered commander's cupola, can be seen.

A new version of the tank, named Matilda IV, entered production in the fall of 1941. Another noticeable change was added to all those that preceded it. The height of the vulnerable commander's cupola was reduced. Another change was the engines: the Leyland E164/E165 was replaced with the E170/E171. Most tanks of this type were equipped with Ford tracks, although there are some with Ruston & Hornsby designs.

This variant was the most common, encompassing 60% of the tanks of this type. Most Matilda IV tanks ended up in the USSR and in Australia, and not in the British army. The tank was produced in two variants: with a 2-pounder cannon and a 76 mm howitzer (Matilda IVCS).

A model of the A24 cruiser tank turret with a 6-pounder gun on the Matilda. The failure of this project put an end to this tank.

The Matilda V was the last variant to be produced. It didn't look any different than the Matilda IV from the outside. All the changes were on the inside. The tank received a Westinghouse servo mechanism, which made driving easier. Like the Matilda IV, these tanks largely went to the USSR and Australia. The British were disappointed with the tank by the end of 1941. It was clear that the 2-pounder gun is no longer powerful enough. As an experiment, the model of the A24 cruiser tank turret was installed on the Matilda, but the experiment was considered a failure. No attempt was made to install the 6-pounder gun into the stock turret, which is odd, given that the Soviets managed to install the 76 mm ZIS-5 gun into the turret of the Matilda III.

Harland & Wolff received a contract to produce 75 tanks in March of 1942. This was the last contract to be issued. The last tank was delivered in August of 1943. 2987 Matilda tanks were produced in total.

15 minutes of fame

The first unit to use the Infantry Tank Mk.II was the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. As of May 10th, 1940, it had 23 tanks of this type. The British were clearly preparing for a positional war, since the characteristic feature of the 7th RTR's tanks was a tail analogous to those used on Renault FT tanks. It was designed to lengthen the tank during crossing of wide trenches. The reality of the May-June campaign was far from what the British predicted. The German Blitzkrieg was fully realized. The Germans took a risk, but it paid off. A sudden offensive by German tank divisions left the Allies unprepared.

Knocked out Infantry Tanks Mk.I and Mk.II, Arras, late May 1940.

The combat debut of the Infantry Tank Mk.II happened on the same day as that of its older brother, the Infantry Tank Mk.I. On May 21st, 1940, tanks of the 7th and 4th Royal Tank Regiments counterattacked elements of the German 7th Tank Divison and SS division Totenkopf. Machinegun and gun tanks fought side by side.

The attack was successful, but not for long. British engineers built a tank that could resist anti-tank guns, not taking into account heavier artillery. 88 mm Flak 18 guns were reclassified as dual purpose guns back in 1938. In addition to aircraft, they would be used against long term fortifications. In reality, their main ground targets were British and French tanks with thick armour. The German gunners enjoyed a great success: two thirds of the British tanks were lost.

This tank has a lifted suspension and the characteristic tail.

The fighting in France was a death sentence for the Infantry Tank Mk.I. As for the Infantry Tank Mk.II, that was a whole other story. Despite the mixed results, it was clear that this was the best tank that British industry could provide. The reliability of this tank was markedly superior to that of the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV. In addition, German 88 mm guns weren't that common on the battlefield.

Tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment in North Africa, 1941.

The Infantry Tank Mk.II waited for a second chance for half a year. Italy entered the war on June 10th, 1940, but fighting in North Africa developed very slowly. After the critical part of the Battle of Britain had passed and it was clear that the Germans would not land on the island, the British could move reinforcements to North Africa. Among them were Infantry Tanks Mk.IIA of the same 7th RTR that had such a poor debut in France.

5:00 am on December 9th, 1940, marked the start of Operation Compass, which resulted in a sound beating of the Italian forces. Tanks of the 7th RTR had their revenge. The Italians had nothing to defeat these thick-skinned tanks. Even the achievements of Tiger battalions pale in comparison to what the 7th RTR achieved here. This is when the tank received the nickname "Queen of the Desert". Its domination was absolute. 

The sad end to Operation Battleaxe. The rear of the tank has a rack for fuel canisters.

The luck of the British came to an end towards the middle of 1941. The first German units of what would eventually become the Afrika Korps began landing at Tripoli on February 14th. It was headed by Erwin Rommel, who already had experience in fighting infantry tanks. His next meeting with them took place in June of 1941. All the players were the same: his opponents were once more the 4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiments.

The countermeasure was the same: using AA guns in an anti-tank role. Large open spaces of the North African desert made the gunners' job simpler than in France. Slow British tanks made for good targets. The experience of the 4th RTR in Operation Battleaxe was a disappointing one: out of 100 tanks the regiment lost 64.

A victim of the German 88 mm gun. A good hit could knock the turret off.

British industry put out 316 Matilda III tanks in the 3rd quarter of 1941, which allowed units to be filled up with infantry tanks. Nevertheless, the British military was already doubting the tank's future on the battlefield. The results of Operation Crusader, which took place from November 18th to December 30th, 1941, added plenty of food for thought. The Matilda suffered heavy casualties once more. It turned out that thick armour alone in North Africa solves very little. The Allies decided to place their bets on cruiser tanks, as well as American light and medium tanks. During the Battle of Gazala which began on May 26th, 1942, only the 4th and 7th RTR had Matilda tanks. By October of 1942 the Matilda was off the front lines.

Repair dump, late 1942. By that point, the Matilda was relegated to the second lines.

North Africa became the last theater of war where the British used Matilda tanks for their primary purpose. It was just one of the many tanks to be filtered out by the sieve of North Africa. Only the Churchill, which had a very mixed debut, managed to defend the honour of British tank industry. This tank was quite handy during the fighting for Tunis. The Matilda was later used for training, never again leaving the island. Other nations, however, used the Matilda for much longer.


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