The Infantry Tank Mk IV Churchill (A22) was a heavily armoured infantry tank that overcame serious reliability problems early in its career to become a mainstay of the British armoured forces during the fighting in North-Western Europe in 1944-45.
The Churchill was produced in larger numbers than any British tank other than the Valentine Infantry Tank Mk III, with a total of 5,40 being completed.
The Churchill evolved from the A20 heavy infantry tank. The A20 was intended to serve as a 'shelled area' tank, one that could survive in the sort of heavily shelled 'no mans land' seen during the First World War. Work on it began in September 1939, when the nature of the upcoming conflict was still unclear. It was to be able to cross wide trenches, operate in very muddy ground and be immune to any known anti-tank gun. The specification included 80mm armour, a crew of seven, speed of only 15mph and ability to climb a 5ft parapet.
Work on the design, which resembled a First World War lozenge tank, was given to Harland & Wolff. Several different combinations of guns were considered, but eventually it was decided to give it a 2-pounder in the turret and another in the hull front and machine guns in the hill sides (one early design was armed with two 2-pounders carried in sponsons on the side, making it look even more outdated). Four prototypes were ordered in February 1940 and the first was ready by June 1940. Tests showed that it was underpowered and one of the 2-pounders would have to be removed in order to satisfy the performance targets. The A20 was to be powered by a Vauxhall twin-six engine.
The A20 trials took place at the same time as the evacuation from Dunkirk. Britain was left with only 100 tanks, and the need for new vehicles gained a sudden urgency. The stalled A20 programme was cancelled and a cut-down specification was produced, for the A22 Infantry Tank. The specification was presented in the same month that work was cancelled on the A20 heavy tank. As a result Vauxhall Motors, which had been working on the A20 engine, was underemployed, and was placed in charge of the new project. The company lacked experience of building tanks, and so a team from the Department of Tank Design worked alongside the Vauxhall team.
The new tank was to be a scaled down version of the A20. It inherited the older design's mix of a hull mounted and turret guns and coaxial Besa gun in the turret. The turret was to be designed to allow the new 6-pounder gun to be installed once it was available, but to start with it was to use a 2-pounder in the turret and 3" howitzer in the hull front. It was to weight 38.5 tones, be 10ft 8in long, and carry an impressive 102mm of armour.
The first prototype was ready by December 1940, and two were completed by January 1941. The two pilots proved to be very unreliable. One of the biggest was caused by oil and water that leaked from the engine and gearbox mixing with dust to jam up the transmission brakedrum, used to steer the tank. The brakes would jam during turns and not unlock when the driver wanted to straighten up. An attempt to fix this by applying the other brake would just add to the problem and could cause the entire transmission to collapse.
The suspension and tracks also caused problems, as did the low quality of work carried out by some of Vauxhall's sub-contractors.
In an attempt to fix some of the problems the original five-speed gearbox was replaced with a four-speed model in the summer of 1941.
In August 1941 problems with the suspension meant that the road speed was limited to 10mph to delay failures. The situation was so bad that Vauxhall decided to issue a leaflet that honestly laid out the faults, how to minimise them and what they were doing to fix each of them. Some of the faults listed at this time included a tendency of the bogies to seize up, track link failures, bolts coming loose in the drive train, problems caused by locating the fuel tanks in hot areas of the tank, a poor choice of materials for pipes in lubrication system and a non-waterproof ignition system. More problems were discovered by the units issued with the Churchill, but in some cases the units also found the solutions.
Construction work on the 6-pounder turret began in August 1941. Once again it was plagued by problems. The first one failed its initial firing trials. The initial version used welded plate armour, but the supply of suitable plates was limited and so a second version, with thinner cast armour was accepted instead.
A large-scale reworking programme had to be put in place to correct faults with earlier production vehicles. The changed included alterations to the engine and suspension, new mud guards and moving the air inlet from below the tank to the sides to reduce the amount of rubbish being drawn in. By December 1941 six major modifications were specified for early production vehicles. In April 1942 the modified tanks were tested, and still suffered from many serious failings. The problems were so severe that the War Office decided to end production after the first contracts had been completed.
The reworking programme required a major effort. By November 1942 Vauxhall listed 40 essential modifications, 40 desirable modifications and another 89 minor modifications, for a total of 169.
In February 1943 the decision was made to re-gun as many tanks as possible to carry the new 75mm gun. This produced the Mk VI, which carried the new gun in existing turrets, and was based on the Mk IV.
In May 1943 the decision was made to order another 1,000 Churchills, with production to continue into 1944. This was partly because of lobbying from the sub-contractors involved in the production programme and partly because the Churchill had performed quite well in Tunisia at the start of 1943.
The tanks produced in 1944 were to be of an improved model, originally known as the Heavy Churchill or A22F Churchill Mk VII and Churchill Mk VIII. In 1945 it was redesignated as the A42. 700 were ordered late in 1943.
The A22F had thicker armour, up to 152mm at the front, used welded construction and had rounded doors. It was given the new British 75mm gun, carried in a newly designed turret. This had cast sides and a welded plate roof.
In July 1944 the decision was made to add appliqué armour to all reworked Churchill tanks. 3/4in plate was to be added to the side, while by the end of the year extra frontal armour was also to be added. Ideally the new A22F turret was also to be installed, but that doesn't appear to have happened and the requirement was dropped in August 1944.
The Churchill used a different suspension system to earlier Infantry tanks. It had a series of eleven small individually sprung road wheels on each side, with the first and last road wheel off the ground in normal circumstances. The idler and the drive wheel were mounted high, so that the return track was level all the way. The space between the suspension and the return track was available for storage, and there were also escape doors on both sides of the tank. The suspension wasn't especially effective, but the low speed of the Churchill reduced the impact of this problem. Most of the springs were protected by armoured plates.
The Churchill Mk I to Mk VI used double-hull construction, with an inner framework made up of 12mm of mild steel and the armour bolted or riveted to the top. The Mk VII and Mk VIII moved to one piece construction, with the armour serving as the structure.
The Churchill had a fairly simple shape. The centre part of the hull formed a simple box. The nose had a single step - the top plate was vertical, then the nose jutted out, and the bottom plate sloped slightly inwards. The rear was wedge shaped.
The hull was divided into four parts. The driver and co-driver sat in the driving compartment in the nose. The rest of the crew were in the turret, which topped the fighting compartment. Behind that was the engine compartment, with the radiators and petrol tanks. Finally the rear compartment carried the gearbox, steering, brakes, air compressor and the generators for the turret traverse system.
The tank was powered by a 12-cylinder Vauxhall Bedford twin-six engine, which was effectively two six-cylinder engines mounted side-by-side.
The Churchill was produced with a series of different turrets. The Mk I and Mk II used a cast turret that could carry either the 2-pounder gun or 3" howitzer.
The Mk III used a new welded turret that could carry a 6-pounder gun. The same turret was retained in the Mk IX LT. Work on this turret began in July 1941.
The Mk IV had a cast turret and the 6-pounder gun. The Mk V used the same turret wit a 95mm howitzer. The Mk VI squeezed the new British 75mm gun into the same turret. It was also used on the Mk IX LT, Mk X LT and Mk XI LT.
The Mk VII introduced a new larger turret with cast sides and a welded roof. On the Mk VII the new turret carried the 75mm gun, on the Mk VIII it was armed with a 95mm howitzer. The heavier turret was also used on upgraded tanks to produce the Mk IX, Mk X and Mk XI (each of which was also produced in LT or Light Turret versions with their original turrets).
Power was provided by a Vauxhall twin-six engine, mounted at the back of the tank. The transmission used a Merritt-Brown four-speed gearbox with controlled differential steering. When no gear was selected the Merritt-Brown system allowed the Churchill to make a neutral turn, spinning on the spot.
The first production order for the Churchill was placed on 1 July 1940. Prime Minister Churchill wanted 500 to be completed by March 1941 (this was soon altered to 100 by May 1941 and the remaining 400 by August 1941), and so the decision was made to go straight from the drawings to production without prototypes. This desperate measure was introduced in an attempt to speed up the service entry of the new tank at a desperate moment, but the end result was that the early Churchill tanks were horribly unreliable.
The first prototype was ready in December 1940, an impressive twenty-two weeks after the start of detailed design work.
The Churchill was plagued by problems. The guns caused some of the earlier ones. The 6-pounder was actually available by the time the first prototype appeared, but the Department of Tank Design only began work on a 6-pounder turret in November 1940. As a result the early Churchill marks were given a smaller turret designed for the 2-pounder. The supply of 3in howitzers then ran short, and some early Churchills were completed with a second Besa Mk II machine gun instead.
Production was slow to build up speed. Fourteen production tanks had been completed by June 1941.
Eventually eleven different companies constructed the Churchill, using parts supplied by over 600 sub-contractors. The main producers were Vauxhall, Broom & Wade, Birmingham Carriage & Wagon, Metropolitan Cammell, Charles Roberts, Newton Chambers, Gloucester Railway Carriage, Leyland, Dennis and Harland & Wolff.
In December 1941 the War Office announced that it had no intentions of continuing development of the Churchill beyond the current 6-pounder version. The continuing reliability problems were at the heart of this - on 15 January 1942 42% of all Churchills in service were out of order!
In July 1942 the War Office announced that Churchill production would end after 3,500 had been completed, but the decision then had to be confirmed by the War Cabinet, which rather took its time.
In October 1942 the Churchill was described in a Most Secret report from the Tank Board as 'obsolescent and going out of production'.
By the end of 1943 around 3,000 had been completed, and the War Office decided to commit them to combat. They also came under pressure from the many sub-contractors involved, who wanted production to continue. In January 1943 the War Cabinet approved the production of another 500 Churchills instead of cancelling it. Of these 300 were to be completed as the Mk V.
The Churchill then performed surprisingly well in Tunisia, and on 14 May 1943 an order for another 1,000 was placed, with production to continue into 1944. These tanks were to be armed with the 75mm gun, at first as the Mk VI. In May the construction of 200 of the heavier A22F (Churchill Mk VII) was announced.
By late in 1944 production was limited to the Mk VII, and to Vauxhall Motors only.
The Churchill was issued in large numbers to tank units forming in Britain, starting in June 1941. At the start of this period they gained a justified reputation for unreliability, but a determined effort was made to fix the problems. Many tank units spent a long time getting to know the Churchill, and by the time they entered combat with them were able to cope with most of the problems that still occurred. Vauxhall were refreshingly honest about the failings of the Churchill, and issued a hand book listing the problems with it and explaining how they intended to fix them.
An example of this was Operation Trent, a training exercise carried out in southern Scotland in the summer of 1942. Three regiments from the 21st Army Tank Brigade each provided a squadron of tanks, each of which was expected to run for 1,000 miles. During the exercise there were 516 incidents where a tank stopped running, including 144 engine failures and 122 brake failures, but despite this all but nine of the tanks completed the required distance (one of these was damaged in an accident).
The Churchill was used by the Tank Brigades (Army Tank Brigades to mid 1942). Each brigade contained three Infantry Tank Regiments, and each of these contained three Churchill squadrons, a RHQ troop with another four and a Recce Troop with light tanks. Each squadron had four tanks in its own HQ troop, and four three-tank troops, for 15 gun tanks. In general the Tank Brigades were used to support the infantry as they struggled to create a breach in the German lines which could then be used by the armoured divisions, with their faster cruiser tanks. Each squadron was associated with a particular infantry battalion.
The Churchill tank was used during the disasterous attack on Dieppe in August 1942. The Calgary Regiment, 14th Canadian Army Tank Battalion, operated a mix of the 2-pounder armed Mk I and Mk II and the 6-pounder armed Mk III, along with three Churchill Oke flamethrower tanks.
Twenty nine of the Churchills began the attack. Half of them were unable to leave the beach (including the three Oke flamethrower tanks). Most of the tanks disabled on the beach were the victim of anti-tank fire, and not shingle on the beach as originally believed.
The fifteen or so tanks that did manage to get over the sea wall and onto the esplanade were unable to get much further inland. None of them could be retrieved when the attack had to be abandoned, and very few were destroyed with the detonation charges that had been provided for that purpose.
As a result a significant number of Britain's newest infantry tank fell intact into German hands right at the start of its career. The Germans were unimpressed with the Churchill, dismissing just about every feature of the design from the suspension to the 2-pounder and 6-pounder guns.
The Churchill fought in small numbers at the Second Battle of El Alamein (October-November 1942). Six Churchill IIIs, with the 6-pounder gun and welded turret, were sent to North Africa for service trials, where they formed Kingforce, commanded by Major Norris King, MC. Kingforce was attacked to HQ, 1st Armoured Division, and took part in the battle. Five of the six took part in the tank battle at Tel el Aqqaqir (3 November 1942). There had been some concern that they would over-heat in the desert, as their cooling system was really designed with northern Europe in mind, but they passed that test. The thick armour also impressed, making them very difficult to damage. One was burnt out after sustaining enemy fire and two were immobilised by minor damage, but the group claimed five tanks and three anti-tank guns, a good return.
This was the only time the Churchill served in the desert war. They didn't take part in the pursuit of the retreating Axis forces.
The Churchill finally entered combat in large numbers during the fighting in Tunisia early in 1943. Six regiments with 300 Churchills (Mk I to Mk III) arrived in theatre early in 1943. First to arrive was the 142nd RAC, which landed in Algiers in January 1943. They were followed by the 51st RTR and the North Irish Horse, and the three regiments formed the 25th Army Tank Brigade. They were followed in March by the 12th RTR, 48th RTR and 145 RTR, which formed the 21st Army Tank Brigade.
During the fighting in Tunisia the Churchill performed quite well, certainly better than many of their critics expected. They destroyed at least three of the new Panzer VI Tigers which arrived in theatre at about the same time. Their crews had been working with their tanks for some time, and had gained a great deal of experience with their remaining faults.
In one area the Churchill did disappoint in North Africa. Neither the 2-pounder nor the 6-pounder gun could fire a good high explosive shell. A survey of British tank commanders carried out just after the end of the fighting in Tunisia in May 1943 revealed that almost all of them wanted tanks armed with a dual-purpose 75mm gun, capable of firing either a HE shell or an anti-tank shell. This view was held at most levels. The Army Tank Brigade that had been using the Churchill were happier with the 6-pounder, especially after a new HE shell was introduced, but still wanted a reasonable number of 75mm tanks.
Sicily and Italy
Neither the 21st nor the 25th Army Tank Brigades were committed to the fighting in Sicily or the early stages of the Italian campaign. The 23rd Armoured Brigade, which did take part in the early parts of campaign, went straight from the Valentine to the Sherman. As a result no Churchills took part in the fighting on Sicily or in the early stages of the Italian campaign. One possible reason, suggested in a British paper of 1945 was that the lighter Sherman was believed to be more suited to the twisty roads and frequent bridges and viaducts of southern Italy. The 21st and 25th Army Tank Brigades had also suffered heavy losses during the fighting in Tunisia.
The Churchill finally arrived in Italy in the spring of 1944, with a mix of models from the earliest Mk I to the 6-pounder versions. The 25th Tank Brigade arrived in April 1944, followed by the 21st Tank Brigade. This second unit was equipped with the Churchill IV NA75, a version of the tank produced in North Africa by fitting 75mm guns from Sherman tanks to the Churchill IV.
The Churchill arrived in time to take part in the final battles around Cassino and the fall of Rome. 25 Tank Brigade supported the 1st Canadian Division from May 1944, during the battle to break the Hitler Line. The heavy tanks helped overcome the German resistance, allowing the Canadians to make the breakthrough. Both brigades took part in the battles on the Gothic Line (August-October 1944), taking part in constant brutal battles in the difficult terrain. 25 Tank Brigade was disbanded at the end of this battle, allowing 21 Tank Brigade to concentrate on the Churchill.
The Churchill took part in the final battles in northern Italy in April-May 1945, playing a part in the destruction of the last German defensive lines and the pursuit into the Po Valley.
The Churchill tank proved to be well suited to fighting in the Apennines. It had excellent climbing ability and its Merritt-Brown transmission allowed it to turn on the spot. However the NA75 was never available in large enough numbers and so the armoured squadrons operated a mix of Churchills and Shermans. Two troops of Churchills were used to break through the German defences and two troops of Shermans to exploit any breakthroughs. The squadron HQ troop also used Churchills, including some of the Churchill Mk V with its 95mm howitzer. By 1945 the supply of tanks had improved, and the Shermans were replaced with Churchills.
One unusual problem encountered in Italy was caused by the strong wire used to support vines in the many vineyards. This became entangled around Churchill turrets and could eventually twist the turret, damaging the traversing gear.
The Churchill served in a variety of roles during the D-Day invasion and the campaign that followed. The Churchill AVRE was an important weapon in the engineer's armoury. The Crocodile flamethrower tank was an effective weapon.
The main versions used in North-Western Europe were the Mk VI, up-gunned Mk IVs with a 75mm gun, the Mk VII, which was built from new with the 75mm gun and the Mk VIII, with the 95mm howitzer in a Mk VII turret. The reworked Mk IXs, Mk Xs and Mk XIs were also available, with the 75mm and 95mm weapons.
The Churchill gun tanks served with the Army Tank Brigades, and played a major role in the fighting that pinned down the German armour on the British and Canadian flank of the fighting in Normandy, creating the circumstances that eventually led to the American breakthrough further west.
The first Churchill-equipped brigade to enter combat in Normandy was 31 Tank Brigade (7th and 9th RTR), which supported the 15th (Scottish) Division from 26 June onwards. The brigade helped push the Germans back to the River Odon, before suffering heavy losses in a series of attacks on Hill 112. The Scots were then replaced by the 53rd (Welsh) Division, supported by the Churchills of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade (4th Battalion Grenadier Guards, 4th Battalion Coldstream Guards, 3rd Battalion Scots Guards). In their first attack at the end of July the Guards broke through the German 326 Infantry Division at Caumont, in the largest Infantry Tank attack of the war.
The Churchill played a less important role in the period after the breakout, first taking a rest then attacking the Channel ports. In September 34 Tank Brigade took part in the attack o Le Havre. The Cromwell cruiser tank and the Sherman led the way in the 'great swan' across France.
The Churchill came back into its own in the winter fighting of 1944-45, when it's great mobility allowed it to move through thick mud that stopped the faster Cromwells and Shermans in their tracks. By October there were two Churchill gun tank brigades in action - 34 Tank Brigade and 6th Guards Tank Brigade. They fought in the Low Countries, including in the attempts to clear the Scheldt estuary.
In February 1945 both brigades took part in Operation 'Veritable', the storming of the difficult Reichswald Forest section of the German Siegfield Line. The battle was fought in thick mud that stopped almost every vehicle apart from the Churchill.
After the crossing of the Rhine the Allied advance became rather too fast for the Churchills, although 6th Guards Tank Brigade was able to support the US 17th Airborne Division during the occupation of Munster.
The Churchill was generally well regarded by its crews during the fighting in Normandy, especially for its ability to soak up punishment. The heavier Churchill Mk VII had more frontal armour than the Tiger, although was still vulnerable in the short range combat in Normandy. The 75mm gun was the main limiting factor, and its crews repeatedly called for the 17-pounder tank gun.
The Churchill saw some service during the Korean War. The first unit to take it into battle was a Crocodile squadron that was attached to the 25th Infantry Brigade Group. This squadron reached the front during the first Chinese offensive, and was forced to act as gun tanks in the desperate retreat. Even after the retreat ended and the line stabilised they were mainly used as gun tanks, before being given a welcome rest from 21 February-22 April 1951. The squadron's ARVs saw action during the Chinese offensive that began on 22 April, but after this was defeated the line settled down yet again. The squadron left Korea in October, three months after the start of the long-drawn out armistice talks.
Churchill Mk I
The Churchill Mk I was armed with a 2-pounder anti-tank gun and coaxial Besa machine gun in a small cast turret and a 3" howitzer in the hull front.
Churchill Mk II
Due to a shortage of 3" howitzers, some early tanks were completed as the Mk II, with the same 2-pounder and coaxial gun in the turret, and a second Besa machine gun in the hull front.
Churchill Mk III
The Churchill Mk III carried a 6-pounder gun in a welded turret. A shortage of weldable armour plate meant that production of the Mk III was limited.
Churchill Mk IV
The Churchill Mk IV carried a 6-pounder gun in a cast turret with thinner armour than the welded plates of the Mk III. It was produced in larger numbers than any other version of the Churchill.
Churchill Mk IV NA75
The Churchill Mk IV NA75 was produced in North Africa by fitting the 75mm gun from a Sherman tank into the Churchill Mk IV.
Churchill Mk V
The Churchill Mk V was a close-support version of the Mk IV, armed with a 95mm howitzer. It saw combat in Italy.
Churchill Mk VI
The Churchill Mk VI carried a British 75mm gun in the turret of the Mk IV. It was produced in small numbers and was quickly superseded by the Churchill Mk VII.
Churchill Mk VII
The Churchill Mk VII was a major redesign. It had a new cast/ welded turret carrying the 75mm gun. It had thicker armour, and eliminated the soft metal sub-structure of earlier versions. It also had stronger suspension and an improved gearbox.
Churchill Mk VIII
The Churchill Mk VIII was a close-support version of the Mk VII, armed with a 95mm howitzer. It was produced in small, but uncertain, numbers.
Churchill Mk IX
The Churchill Mk IX was the designation given to Mk IVs that were given appliqué armour. Plans to also give them the 75mm gun in the Mk VII turret don't appear to have come to anything.
Churchill Mk X
The Churchill Mk X was the designation given to the 75mm-armed Mk VI when given appliqué armour. A plan to give it the Mk VII turret doesn't appear to have been carried out.
Churchill Mk XI
The Churchill Mk XI was the designation given to the 95mm-armed Mk V when given appliqué armour. As with the above models a plan to give it the Mk VIII turret appears not to have been followed.
The Churchill Oke was a prototype flamethrower tank. It carried a small amount of flame fuel in a jettisonable tank at the rear of the tank, and the flame projector was mounted to the left of the hull machine gun. Three were sent on the Dieppe raid of August 1942, but all were knocked out before entering combat.
The Churchill Crocodile was the most effective Allied flamethrower tank of the Second World War. It carried its fuel in a separate towed container, linked to the flame projector by a tube under the tank. The flame projector replaced the hull machine gun. The Crocodile saw extensive combat in north-western Europe in 1944-45.
The Churchill Octopus was an attempt to create a safe route across a minefield. Turretless tanks carrying ramps would drive across a minefield until disabled. They would then deploy the ramps and a new Octopus would take over. Eventually a line of knocked out tanks, linked by ramps, would create a safe causeway across the minefield. The idea was abandoned, but the modified tanks were then used as the Ark bridging device.
The Churchill Ark used the same turretless tanks with their ramps to fill antitank ditches or other gaps. A series of Ark tanks would drive into the ditch until the ramp over the top tanks formed a useable bridge.
The Churchill AVRE was an engineer's tank. The normal gun was removed and replaced with a massive Petard mortar, capable of firing a very heavy demolition charge a short distance. The interior of the tank was filled with engineering stores. Its side doors allowed relatively save exit and entry in the battlefield. The AVRE was used to carry a wide range of special weapons into battle and played a major part in the campaign in north-western Europe in 1944-45.
Gun Carrier, 3in, Mk I, Churchill
The Gun Carrier, 3in, Mk I, Churchill, was an early attempt to produce a tank destroyer by mounting an old 3in anti-aircraft gun in a new superstructure on a Churchill tank. The Gun Carrier was cancelled in favour of more Churchill production and the existing vehicles fell into limbo between the Gunners and the Royal Armoured Corps and never saw action.
Churchill Mk IV, A22, Infantry Tank Mk IV
Hull Length: 24ft 5in
Hull Width: 9ft
Height: 10ft 8n
Crew: 5 (commander, gunner, loader, driver, co-driver/ hull gunner)
Engine: 350hp Bedford twin-six
Max Road Speed: 15.5mph
Max Cross-county Speed: 8mph
Road Range: 90 miles radius
Armament: 6-pounder gun and 7.92mm Besa machine gun in turret, 7.92mm Besa machine gun in hull front