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Churchill III in Tunisia The Churchill Tank

By Richard Chambers

Throughout the war the British Army maintained three distinct classes of tanks. The Light tanks operated primarily as reconnaissance. The Cruiser tanks operated as gun tanks, similar in role to the medium tanks used by the other combatants. 

It was in the third class, Infantry tanks, where Britain differed significantly from the other nations, whose heavies tended to be big-gun tank killers, designed to impose their domination over the battlefield. British heavy tanks were Infantry Tanks, the Matilda and the Churchill. These were developed with the sole intention of supporting infantry in attack. The Churchill, therefore, was designed to move at the same pace as the soldiers, to be able to cross shell-cratered ground, trenches and other common obstacles such as barbed wire entanglements and parapets. It was also provided with more armour than the Cruiser tanks, so as to be able to withstand anti-tank fire from emplaced guns as it moved towards the enemies front lines.

The Churchill was designed and built at a time when the war was in its darkest hour for Britain, and with only 100 tanks available for the whole British Army, the tank was rushed into service without the usual development and testing of prototypes. Indeed the manufacturers, Vauxhall Motors provided a user handbook that acknowledged the teething problems that were known and asked the units receiving the Churchill tanks to report any new problems so solutions could be forthcoming.

The story of the Churchill tank, which had such dubious beginnings, and a fairly inauspicious debut in action at Dieppe is an interesting parallel to the British Army as a whole.

Churchill I tank training for Dieppe
Through the struggles in North Africa to the eventual victory there, in Italy and throughout North West Europe, the Churchill gave a good account of itself and came out of the war with a good reputation.
In 1942, with the war in North Africa at a critical stage, Winston Churchill - then serving as prime minister and minister of defence - delivered a historic speech before the House of Commons. Facing a motion of censure, Churchill delivered a ninety-minute oration, during which an MP asked about a certain 'Churchill' tank fiasco.

"This tank," Churchill candidly explained, "was ordered off the drawing board and large number went into production very quickly. As might be expected, it had many defects and teething troubles and, when these became apparent, the tank was appropriately re-christened the 'Churchill.'

"These defects have now been largely overcome," he added. "I have no doubt that this tank will prove, in the end, a powerful, massive and serviceable weapon of war."

This self-deprecating joke was met with delighted laughter throughout the House; in the ensuing vote the motion was defeated by a majority of 475 to 25.

Taken from “Armour in Focus Profiles: The Churchill Tank”, Winston and His Tank, Gerry Chester, http://www.armourinfocus.co.uk/a22/

Churchill I


The development of the Churchill tank follows advances in British tank armament, as shown below:

Churchill I and II (1430 produced)

By 1941, the 2 pdr gun had proven to be ineffective against German armour. However, large numbers of it were still being produced, as with a possible invasion imminent, there was no time to re-tool factories for the new 6 pdr.

The Churchill I, therefore was armed with a 2-pdr gun in the turret with a co-axial 7.92mm Besa machine gun. To supplement this, a 3-inch howitzer, capable of firing a heavy High Explosive round was mounted in the hull. This provided the tank with the ability to take on enemy bunkers, and other hardened targets. As these were immobile, mounting the howitzer in the hull should not prove to much of a disadvantage.

The Churchill II replaced the howitzer with a second machine gun in the hull. 

The Churchill tanks Marks I and II first saw active service on the Dieppe Raid in 1942 where they performed badly. Their small road wheels and weight proved a bad combination on Dieppe’s loose shingle beach. The small beach stones worked their way between the road wheels and the tracks causing the tanks to throw tracks, while other Churchill tanks dug themselves into the loose ground.

Despite this inauspicious combat debut, the basic design proved reliable and with some redesign the Churchill I and II continued in service in Tunisia and Italy, a few even soldiering on to 1944 the Gothic Line battles.

Churchill I

Churchill I CS (6 produced)

Each Squadron HQ has Close Support or ‘CS’ variants of the Churchill tank attached to it. Their role was to use large calibre, high explosive rounds to defeat dug-in enemy infantry and crew served weapons, such as anti-tank guns. They could also fire smoke rounds to obscure those targets it could not destroy.

Feedback from crews of the Churchill I indicated that the hull-mounted 3-inch howitzer was particularly ineffective. It was extremely difficult to aim, as the whole tank had to be adjusted and was near impossible to target the enemy from a hull-down position.

The Churchill I CS was a compromise tank, which added another 3-inch howitzer to the turret, in place of the 2 pdr gun. To make the tanks even more effective, cupolas from destroyed Panzer III tanks were salvaged and added to the turret, giving the commanders much better visibility of the battlefield.

This Churchill variant was of very limited numbers (6) and only saw action on one occasion. 

Churchill III

Churchill III (675 produced)

With the increasing availability of the powerful OQF 6 pdr and numerous modifications, the Churchill III was a solid reliable design which eliminated the 3-inch hull howitzer and equipped the tank with the better main gun in a box like, welded turret.

With production starting in March 1942, the Churchill III saw action at Dieppe, El Alamein, Tunisia, Italy and North West Europe. An example of its excellent durability is shown when, during two actions in North Africa, six Churchill III were hit 106 times with Armour Piercing and High Explosive rounds.

Despite each tank being hit 17 to 18 times on average, only 1 tank was destroyed, with another immobilised with track damage and a third suffering a jammed turret. This compares well to other tanks of the time which were typically knocked out by the first hit!

Before the Normandy invasion 242 Churchill III tanks were retrofitted with 75mm guns and were known as Churchill III* (75mm). 

Churchill IV (1622 produced)

The MK IV was the most numerous Churchill produced, and was virtually identical to the MK III, with the most recognisable change being a return to a cast turret. This was of similar dimensions to that of the welded Churchill III turret, but curves replaced the angles. The cast turret proved more cost efficient to make and with a lack of seams had better defensive characteristics.

The Churchill IV made its combat debut Italian Campaign and also fought throughout the North Western European campaign.

Prior to D-Day 820 Churchill IV were fitted with a 75mm main gun, making them virtually indistinguishable from the Mark VI, and was known as the Churchill IVB (75mm).

Churchill IV
Churchill IV NA75

Churchill IV (NA 75) (Approx 200 produced)

The Churchill IV (NA 75) was a field expedient to rectify the perceived poor performance of the 6 pdr High Explosive round. It essentially involved combining the excellent cross-country capabilities of the Churchill tank with the combat-proven 75mm main gun taken from battle damaged Sherman tanks.

The gun and Sherman manlet were mounted directly onto the front of the turret.

The gun was rotated 90 degrees in the mount, so it could be loaded from the left, thereby conforming to how British tank crews were seated in the turret.

The combination proved successful, with the Churchill being an excellent gun platform. Approximately 200 Churchill tanks were converted to take the 75mm gun between April and June 1944. The name NA75 comes from North Africa (NA) where the conversions took place, and 75 is for the gun. Churchill IV (NA 75) tanks were sent into action in Italy in June 1944 with the 21st and 25th Tank Brigades.

Churchill IV NA75
Churchill V of the North Irish Horse

Churchill V CS (241 produced)

The Churchill V CS was the close support version of the Churchill IV armed with a 95mm close-support howitzer in place of the main gun. The howitzer is easily recognised due to its shortness and because it carried a prominent counter-weight on its muzzle.

The Mark V was usually fielded in the squadron HQ, to provide the unit with an ability to engage anti-tank guns and fire smoke ammunition to mask those it could not destroy.

Churchill VI (200 produced)

The Mark VI was basically a Churchill IV rearmed with the 75mm Mk V gun. Other minor improvements were made to the design but only a few were built due to the upcoming Mark VII and up gunning of some of the original Churchill III & IV with the same 75mm gun.

Churchill VI with 75mm gun
Churchill VII

Churchill Mk VII (1600 produced)

The Churchill Mk VII was the final production model of the Churchill Infantry tank. It included many improvements over the Mk VI including being substantially up armoured, from a maximum armour thickness of 102mm to 152mm. The Mark VII had an improved turret of a composite cast/welded construction, which had an angled lip running around its bottom to reduce shot traps.

The layout of the turret was improved for easier crew access and it was fitted with a raised cupola to give the commander better vision during combat.

Many Churchill VII tanks became Crocodile flamethrower tanks, indeed in Normandy the 141st Regiment of the Royal Armoured Corps (141 RAC, previously 7th Battalion, The Buffs) were entirely equipped with Crocodiles. Some Mark VII tanks were issued to normal infantry tank units as replacements, where many squadron and platoon commanders snatched them up as their personal chariots.

The Churchill VII saw service in Normandy and France, Holland, Italy and Germany.

Churchill VII Crocodile

Churchill Mk VIII CS (It’s unknown how many were produced)

The Mark VIII CS has the same relationship to the Churchill VII as the Mark V CS has to the Mark IV. It is basically the close support version of the Churchill VII armed with a 95mm howitzer, in place of the main gun. Relatively few were produced and few saw service late in the war.

Churchill I ARV

Churchill ARV (Armoured Recovery Vehicle)

Two variant Churchill armoured recovery vehicles were developed during the war. The first, referred to as a Churchill ARV I, used a turretless Mark I hull on which was stowed, cables, towing bars, pulleys and a collapsible ‘A’ frame jib. The second model, the Churchill ARV II, was more lavishly appointed and used the chassis of a Mark III or IV. It had a fixed structure, replacing the turret, which mounted a dummy gun, a rear fixed jib with a winch and a spade anchor.

The full rules for using Armoured Recovery Vehicles are found on page 41 of the main rulebook.

Sources - Websites

General Churchill Information

Orders of Battle

The Churchill Tank

The North Irish Horse – Gerry Chester’s excellent website

Tank Tracks

9th Royal tank Regiment war Diary – June to July 1944

Sources - Books

Byran Perret, Churchill Infantry Tank 1941 – 51, Osprey Books, New Vanguard, 1993
ISBN 1 85532 297 8

Ludovic Fortin, British Tanks in Normandy, Histoire & Collections, 2005
ISBN 2 915239 33 9

More on the Churchill at FlamesOfWar.com

21st Army Group Tanks...

British Tank Units and Markings in Italy...

Churchill I/II...

Churchill IV (NA 75)...

Churchill IV, V CS & VI...

Churchill VII...

Last Updated On Monday, October 29, 2012 by Blake at Battlefront