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The tortoise in the race

An early Churchill outside the Bovington Tank Museum
An early Churchill outside the Bovington Tank Museum (Photo: tanks-encyclopedia.com)

What are the most iconic tanks of World War II? For America, it must be the Sherman. For Germany, the large cats: the Panther and the Tigers. For the Soviet Union, the T-34. But what about the United Kingdom? We would argue it's the Churchill infantry tank. It was not the British tank built in the highest numbers, and it was not the best-suited British tank for World War II, but it was well-loved by its crews, and it represented a real underdog story: a tank design out of its time, constantly struggling to stay relevant, and somehow not only hanging in there until the end, but even becoming surprisingly useful.

Churchill tanks in Italy, 1944
Churchill tanks in Italy, 1944 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

British tank design between the two World Wars assumed that the next big war would be very much like the previous one, where massive, well-defended trench systems would divide the opposing armies, with heavily cratered no man's land in-between. Therefore, two fundamentally different tank types would be needed. One would do the same thing that World War I tanks did, only better: it would advance across no man's land slowly along a wide front, protecting the infantry walking behind it with its hull while using its weapons to suppress enemy defenses like bunkers or machine guns. Once a section of the enemy trenches was captured by these "infantry tanks" and the infantry, the second type of tank, the "cruiser tank," would advance behind enemy lines and wreak havoc with its high speed and armament designed to take out other armored vehicles.

An early Churchill tank in the factory
An early Churchill tank in the factory (Photo: British authorities)

This idea dictated what an infantry tank was supposed to be like. It had to have thick armor to withstand enemy defensive weapons. It had to be wide to allow friendly infantry to hide behind it, and it had to be long so it could cross trenches without falling in. One thing it didn't need to be was fast: it was supposed to move at a walking pace to allow infantry to keep up, and it was not supposed to cover large distances while running amok behind enemy lines (the cruiser tanks would do that), so speed just wasn't needed.
 
The Matilda and Valentine tanks were Britain's staple infantry tanks at the onset of World War II, but British military planners were already seeing the need for a new design that was fundamentally similar just better. The first design for the new tank, the A20, was designed in 1939, and the only two tanks ever produced were built in 1940. The A20 was generally similar in shape to what later became the Churchill, but one huge event stopped its development: the fall of France.

The A20 prototype
The A20 prototype (Photo: Unknown photographer)

The German invasion of France completely disproved British ideas of repeating World War I with slow infantry tanks. The Blitzkrieg involved German armored formations maneuvering and advancing so fast that trench systems were impossible to build. Additionally, the Dunkirk evacuation (Read our earlier article - The “Miracle of Dunkirk”) forced the British Expeditionary Force to abandon much of its equipment, and a German invasion of the United Kingdom seemed like a very real possibility for a time. Britain needed new weapons and tanks – and fast.

Abandoned vehicles on the beach at Dunkirk
Abandoned vehicles on the beach at Dunkirk (Photo: albumwar2.com)

The A20 was scrapped, and a new design, the A22, was drawn up. It was altered to fit the changed situation, but it was still very much an old-style infantry tank. There was simply no time to completely rethink tank doctrine and come up with a brand-new vehicle; the country had to make do with whatever could be built within a year. Due to the extreme hurry, the design did not go through the normal cycle of testing and improvement. It came off the assembly lines straight into service, with a user handbook that acknowledged its teething problems: "Fighting vehicles are urgently required, and instructions have been received to proceed with the vehicle as it is rather than hold up production. All those things which we know are not as they should be will be put right."
 
There is some controversy surrounding the name "Churchill." Many people and some written sources assume the tank was named after the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. However, it was, and still is, very unusual in the British military to name new vehicle types or warships after living individuals. More decisively, Churchill himself wrote that the tank was actually named after one of his ancestors, Sir John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, who was a highly accomplished English general in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Sir John Churchill, the tank's most likely namesake
Sir John Churchill, the tank's most likely namesake (Image: National Army Museum)

The new tank epitomized the infantry tank concept. It was 10'8" (3.25 m) wide and 24'5" (7.44 m) long. Compare that with the Sherman's width of 8'7" to 9'10" (2.62 to 3 m) and length of 19'2" to 20'7" (5.84-6.27 m) (depending on model), and you can see how the Churchill was designed to provide cover to infantry and cross ditches and trenches. It had two guns: a 2-pounder (40mm) in the turret to engage enemy vehicles, and a 3-inch howitzer firing high explosive shells at infantry and fortifications stuck directly into the hull. Like a true infantry tank, it was also slow: its maximum speed was about 17 mph (27 km/h), much slower than most other tanks. In practice, it usually traveled even slower. The running wheels did not have rubber covering them, so the metal was in contact with the metal track links. The racket of the tank in motion was so bad that it usually only moved at a speed of around 10 mph (16 km/h), since the noise would drown out the radio at higher speeds.

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Winston Churchill inspecting a Churchill tank. Information on the open hatch below. 
Winston Churchill inspecting a Churchill tank. Information on the open hatch below. (Photo: British authorities)

Another callback to World War I-era tanks was the positioning of the tracks. The top of the tracks ran along the top of the hull, rather than halfway up. This allowed an escape hatch to be cut into the side of the tank, between the bottom and top sections of the track, allowing the crew to leave the vehicle without climbing out through the top and exposing themselves to enemy fire. These hatches were also put to good use in Europe during and after the Normandy landings. A Churchill could simply roll up to something that needed to be blown up and park between it and enemy forces. Sappers could climb out through the side hatch, place explosive charges on the target, protected from fire by the tank's hull. They could then climb back in, roll away, and detonate the charge.

A Churchill Mk IV with the side hatch visible above the 3rd and 4th running wheels
A Churchill Mk IV with the side hatch visible above the 3rd and 4th running wheels (Photo: milart.blog)

The Churchill Mk I was a disappointment due to the hurried production. Its engine was underpowered and unreliable, and the armament was not up to the job. The 2-pounder gun didn't really have enough firepower for World War II use, and the howitzer proved almost completely useless. Located low in the tank's hull, it could only fire at a target when the entire tank was exposed to enemy guns. The high explosive shell for it wasn't good enough, and there's wasn't enough of it, anyway. The gun was mainly used to launch smoke shells which did have a proper battlefield use, but hardly justified a whole separate gun. The howitzer was removed from the Mk II and later models.

A Mk I with its howitzer in the hull
A Mk I with its howitzer in the hull (Photo: strijdbewijs.nl)

Another problem was that the external air intake for the engines was pointing down, towards the ground. This meant that the system regularly scooped up leaves, dirt and other unwanted junk, and was later changed to point upward.
 
Though the tank had its weaknesses, it also had major strengths as well. One was its thick armor. Early versions had armor thickness ranging from 51 mm in the rear to 102 mm protecting the driver from frontal hits (the German Tiger I tank had 100 mm of frontal armor). Over several revisions, the Churchill became one of the best-armored tanks of the war: late-model Churchills had 152 mm of on the front of both the turret and the hull, making it one of the most impervious tanks in the war.
 
Another strength of the Churchill was mobility over rough terrain. While it was very slow, it was actually very good at climbing steep surfaces. This ability allowed Churchills to attack German forces from hilltops and other elevated locations where the Germans were not expecting Allied armor, believing the place to be untraversable.

Churchill tanks traversing rough terrain in Ireland after the war 
Churchill tanks traversing rough terrain in Ireland after the war (Photo: keymilitary.com)

Among other changes, including a new turret, the Mk III also replaced the anemic 2-pounder gun with a quick firing 6-pounder (57 mm), which was a major upgrade. However, there's a theme running through World War II tank design, which you might be aware of if you have read our earlier articles on the Sherman (Read our earlier article - The M4 Sherman) and the Panzer IV (Read our earlier article - The German workhorse: Panzer IV): guns that were sufficient early in the war badly needed replacement as the enemy started fielding newer, better-armored tanks in just a few years. The Churchill fared similarly.

A Churchill Mk IV with a 6-pounder
A Churchill Mk IV with a 6-pounder (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The tank first saw combat in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid on August 19, 1942 (Read our earlier article – The Dieppe Raid). The raid involved 6,000 mainly Canadian troops and a tank regiment, and had the mission of temporarily capturing the German-held French coastal city of Dieppe. This had a double purpose: troops were supposed to gather intelligence while the city was in their hands, but the operation also served as a trial to see if such amphibious attacks could be done. It was also the Churchill's debut, and the first time tanks were used in an amphibious landing.

Churchill tanks, a landing craft and dead servicemen in the aftermath of the Dieppe Raid
Churchill tanks, a landing craft and dead servicemen in the aftermath of the Dieppe Raid (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

The raid was a disaster. The infantry was pinned down on the beaches. Out of the 58 Churchills assigned to the mission, only 30 could be transported to shore, as German fire prevented a second wave of landings. One of these 30 could not leave the landing craft carrying it. Two sank before making it to dry land. Eleven were immobilized on the beach: some by German artillery fire, others by the hard, large pieces of chert stone that formed the shingle on the beach and which jammed and broke the tracks. 15 tanks did make it over the sea wall thanks to their ability to climb steep surfaces, and broke into the city's promenade, but were stopped by anti-tank barricades, since the sappers tasked with removing those were trapped on the beach. Ten of these fifteen thanks rolled back to the beach and provided covering fire to retreating infantry until they ran out of ammo. Most of the crews of these tanks were captured. One positive lesson of the disaster was that the tank's armor was truly formidable, as none of the tanks were knocked out or destroyed by direct anti-tank fire. On the other hand, the failed operation gifted a handful of Britain's brand-new tanks to the Germans, who studied them and concluded that the Churchill just wasn't very good at all.

"Buttercup," one of the Churchill participating in the raid, standing at the water's edge. The Y-shaped pipes in the back are an exhaust pipe extension that allowed the tank to wade through deep water.
"Buttercup," one of the Churchill participating in the raid, standing at the water's edge. The Y-shaped pipes in the back are an exhaust pipe extension that allowed the tank to wade through deep water.
(Photo: milart.blog)

The tank soon had a chance to redeem itself in North Africa. A detachment of six Churchills named "Kingforce" (after its leader, Major Norris King) was deployed to the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. The battle was the culmination of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's (Read our earlier article – The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox) offensive in Africa, and turned the tide of the war there. The Churchill proved too slow to participate in most African operations, which involved extensive maneuvering over large distances, but once again, it proved very resilient, with one tank taking 80 hits during the battle.

Churchill Mk IIIs from Kingforce in the Western Desert, November 1942
Churchill Mk IIIs from Kingforce in the Western Desert, November 1942 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

It was in Africa that the Churchill started receiving the armament upgrade it badly needed. British tankers noticed that many knocked-out Shermans still had perfectly serviceable 75 mm guns which fit inside the Churchill's turret. They stripped these guns from the wrecks and installed them in the Churchills. These variants, designated NA 75, enjoyed a significant boost to firepower, especially with high explosive ammunition used against infantry. (Other Churchills later received British-manufactured 75 mm guns.)

A Churchill NA 75 in Italy, September 1944
A Churchill NA 75 in Italy, September 1944 (Photo: tanks-encyclopedia.com)

The tank fared decently for the rest of the African campaign despite its extremely slow speed. On one occasion, two Churchills ambushed a German convoy, destroying two 88 mm, two 75 mm and two 50 mm guns, four smaller anti-tank guns, 25 wheeled vehicles, 2 mortars, two Panzer IIIs and killing or wounded 200 men.
 
On April 21, 1943, a lucky Churchill managed to bag a rare trophy in Tunisia: a Tiger tank. A lucky shot from its un-upgraded 6-pounder lodged between the big cat's turret and turret ring, disabling the turret and injuring the crew inside. Once the Tiger, more specifically Tiger 131, was abandoned, it was taken back to Britain to study. It is on display at the Bovington Tank Museum today, and is the only Tiger I tank in the world in operating condition.

Tiger 131 after its capture
Tiger 131 after its capture (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The Churchill went on to serve in Italy, Burma, India and the Pacific, though it only arrived in Asia and the Pacific very late in the war and in very small numbers. 301 tanks even went to the Soviet Union as part of the Lend-Lease program, and some of them fought at the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Prokhorovka (part of the wider Battle of Kursk). And, of course, it also appeared in numbers on D-Day, and in Western Europe during and after the liberation of Normandy.

Wounded soldiers taking shelter behind a Churchill AVRE on Juno Beach
Wounded soldiers taking shelter behind a Churchill AVRE on Juno Beach (Photo: British military)

The D-Day landings also showcased another feature of the Churchill: its suitableness for modifications. In fact, the Churchill had been used as the base for various specialist vehicles even before D-Day. Many, but not all of these modifications belonged to the famous Hobart's Funnies (Read our earlier article - Hobart's Funnies), which greatly aided British and Canadian troops on the Normandy beaches. Some of these modified Churchills, the Bobbins, were used to lay down a strip of carpet across the sandy beach, allowing other vehicles to roll inland without getting stuck in the sand.

A Churchill Bobbin laying down a carpet
A Churchill Bobbin laying down a carpet (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The Churchill ARK (for "Armoured Ramp Carrier") had its turret removed and ramps added. It could roll up against a steep incline or into a ditch and acts as a bridge for other vehicles.

Two ARKs stacked atop each other, with a self-propelled artillery piece crossing an Italian river with their help
Two ARKs stacked atop each other, with a self-propelled artillery piece crossing an Italian river with their help (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Other Churchills carried large bundles of fascine (branches tied together), which could be dropped into trenches and ditches to fill them up. Yet others were modified to serve as bridge layers, mine-clearing vehicles or recovery vehicles. The Double Onion carried a metal frame with several large explosive charges. These could be dropped next to a wall without anyone having to get out of the vehicle, then detonated from a safe distance.

A Double Onion with the frame and charges in the front
A Double Onion with the frame and charges in the front (Photo: British military)

The Churchill Crocodile was a terrifying modification, armed with a flamethrower with an effective range of about 80 yards. The flamethrower fuel was carried in a separate trailer pulled behind the vehicle; this way, an explosion of the mixture would occur outside the tank and not kill the crew. Heavily armored to withstand most German weapons and capable of burning the defenders of a bunker or other fortified position alive, it was often enough for the Crocodile to show up and squirt a ranging burst of fire from far away – the Germans would immediately surrender. The downside of such terror, of course, was that Crocodile crews who were captured could not expect much mercy.

A Churchill Crocodile using its flamethrower 
A Churchill Crocodile using its flamethrower (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Another destructive modification was the Churchill AVRE ("Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers"). The AVRE was armed with the massive, 290 mm Petard mortar which replaced the main gun. The projectiles fired from the mortar, nicknamed "flying dustbins," only had an effective range of 80 yards, but were filled with enough high explosives to cause tremendous damage to German fortifications. One drawback of the Petard was that someone had to get outside the tank and reload it from there, which was clearly very dangerous if there were still any living Germans nearby.

An AVRE crewman atop the Petard mortar's barrel, with a 40-pound (18.4 kg) "flying dustbin" next to him
An AVRE crewman atop the Petard mortar's barrel, with a 40-pound (18.4 kg) "flying dustbin" next to him (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

One particular Churchill AVRE still stands today where it fell, on Juno Beach in Normandy. "1Charlie" slipped into a water-filled crater and got stuck on D-Day. With no way of getting the tank out, the six-man crew tried to abandon the vehicle but most of them were cut down by machine gun fire. It was recovered and restored in 1976, and placed back near the site of the crater as a monument. The tank's driver, Bill Dunn, passed away in 2014. In line with his last wish, his ashes were scattered at the tank, at the site where he lost most of his crewmates.

1Charlie at Grey-sur-Mer along Juno Beach
1Charlie at Grey-sur-Mer along Juno Beach (Photo: Author's own)

In 1943, a new tank was designed based on the Churchill. Named after the 14th century military leader Edward, the Black Prince, the Black Prince tank was supposed to be the Churchill's heir, improved in every way. It was still extremely slow and extremely thickly armored, but had a wider hull and a larger turret, capable of housing the same powerful 17-pounder gun also used by the Sherman Firefly. Only six prototypes were built in 1945, as the war ended and the obsolete division between infantry and cruiser tanks was replaced by the concept of the "universal tank," which we today recognize as the main battle tank.

An intimidating Black Prince prototype (right) next to a Matilda I 
An intimidating Black Prince prototype (right) next to a Matilda I (Photo: The Tank Museum)

There are several remaining Churchill tanks in museums around the world. For instance, you can find several variants at the Tank Museum in Bovington or at the Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia and some are on outdoor displays in Normandy.

The last Churchill ever built on display at the Bovington Tank Museum and presented by the iconic historian of the museum, Mr. David Fletcher
The last Churchill ever built on display at the Bovington Tank Museum and presented by the iconic historian of the museum, Mr. David Fletcher (Photo: YouTube, Tank Museum)
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